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Closing arguments scheduled Friday in trial of police officer charged in Elijah McClain’s death

Aurora, Colo., police officer Nathan Woodyard attends an arraignment hearing after being charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, on Jan. 20, at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton, Colo.Andy Cross/Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — Closing arguments are scheduled Friday in the trial of a police officer charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man stopped as he walked home from the store after someone reported that he was suspicious.

Nathan Woodyard is the third police officer to be prosecuted in McClain's 2019 death in the Denver suburb of Aurora. Protests over the killing of George Floyd a year later renewed interest in the case and led to calls for first responders to be held responsible for his death.

The trial of two other police officers indicted in McClain’s death ended in a split verdict last month, with Jason Rosenblatt acquitted of all charges and Randy Roedema convicted of the least serious charges he faced — criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault — which could lead to a sentence of anywhere from probation to prison time.

Two paramedics, Jeremy Cooper and Lt. Peter Cichuniec, who were involved with giving McClain a large dose of the sedative ketamine after he struggled with police, are scheduled to go on trial later this month. They have pleaded not guilty.

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The coroner office's autopsy report, updated in 2021, found that McClain died of an overdose of ketamine that was given after he was forcibly restrained by police. While it found no evidence that the police actions contributed to McClain's death, prosecutors presented their own medical expert who said there was a direct link. Dr. Roger Mitchell of Howard University, the former Washington, D.C. coroner, said the police restraint caused a series of cascading health problems, including difficulty breathing and a buildup of acid in McClain's body.

Prosecutors have also argued that the police encouraged paramedics to give McClain ketamine by saying he had symptoms, like having increased strength, that are associated with a controversial condition known as excited delirium that has been associated with racial bias against Black men.

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In both trials, the defense sought to pin the blame on McClain's death on the paramedics. But while attorneys in the first trial suggested McClain bore some responsibility for his medical decline by struggling with police, Woodyard's lawyers, Megan Downing and Andrew Ho, have seemed more sympathetic to him. Instead, they have stressed that Woodyard, after putting McClain in a neck hold early in the encounter, was not with McClain later as his condition deteriorated and other officers, including Roedema and Rosenblatt, continued to restrain him.

Prosecutors have portrayed Woodyard's actions as abandoning McClain and suggested he was more worried about administrative concerns, such as a possible investigation, rather than how McClain was doing.

Unlike the other officers, Woodyard also took the stand, testifying this week that he put McClain in the carotid control hold because he feared for his life after he heard McClain say, “I intend to take my power back” and Roedema say, “He just grabbed your gun, dude.”

Prosecutors say McClain never tried to grab an officer’s weapon, and it can’t be seen in body camera footage, which is shaky and dark before all the cameras fall off during the ensuing struggle. The defense has argued Woodyard had to react to what he heard in the moment.

Woodyard was the first of three officers who approached McClain after a 17-year-old 911 caller said McClain, who was wearing earbuds and listening to music, seemed “sketchy” and was waving his arm.

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Prosecutors say Woodyard grabbed McClain within eight seconds of getting out of his patrol car without introducing himself or explaining why he wanted to talk to McClain. McClain, seemingly caught off guard, tried to keep walking. The encounter quickly escalated.