Neck hold used on Elijah McClain emerges as focal point in officers' trial over his 2019 death

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FILE - A demonstrator carries an image of Elijah McClain during a rally and march in Aurora, Colo., June 27, 2020. McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died after a 2019 encounter with police. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

BRIGHTON, Colo. – A neck hold that Denver-area police used on Elijah McClain prior to the Black man's 2019 death lasted only seconds but has emerged as a focal point in the first criminal trial against officers and paramedics charged in his death.

Defense attorneys for the first two officers to go on trial closed their case Friday without calling any witnesses. Rather, they sought to use the prosecution's own witnesses and video that's been shown repeatedly to jurors to make their case that Aurora officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt's actions weren't to blame in McClain's death.

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The district attorney initially did not to pursue criminal charges, but the case was re-examined in 2020, resulting in a criminal indictment and becoming a rallying cry for protests against police brutality against Black people following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Prosecutors spent two weeks painting a picture of excessive force by officers who used a neck hold and pinned McClain to the ground after stopping him on as he walked home along a street.

Known as a carotid control hold, it rendered the 23-year-old massage therapist temporarily unconscious. That kicked off cascading events in which McClain's medical condition deteriorated and he died after receiving an overdose of a powerful sedative from paramedics, according to prosecutors.

The hold lowered the oxygen level in his brain while his exertions during the altercation increased the amount of acid in his body, Dr. Roger Mitchell, a Howard University medical school professor and former chief medical officer for Washington, D.C. testified Thursday.

The lack of oxygen and increased acid created a “vicious cycle,” making McClain vomit and then inhale the vomit into his lungs so that it became hard for him to breathe, Michell said. The lack of circulation to McClain’s brain during the hold caused blood vessels in his eyes to burst, Mitchell said.

Autopsy photos of his eyes, showed in court as Sheneen McClain watched from the front row Thursday, showed brown spots where the vessels broke.

Roedema and Rosenblatt, who are charged with criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and assault, all felonies have pleaded not guilty and declined Friday to take the stand to testify.

When cross examining Mitchell, a lawyer for Roedema, Don Sisson, said McClain could have caused the increased acid in his body by resisting the police. During the questioning, Mitchell said he could not say whether McClain would have died just from the encounter with police.

“The ketamine is the ultimate cause of death here,” said one of Rosenblatt's attorneys, Harvey Steinberg.

Use of force expert Ed Obayashi, who spent 25 years in law enforcement and has been following the McClain case, told The Associated Press he doesn’t believe the officers acted maliciously during the late-night stop on Aug 24, 2019. But Obayashi said it’s easy for a carotid hold to be misapplied and impair a person’s breathing.

“It can very easily transmute to a choking maneuver," he said.

Obayashi added that banning neck restraints can leave officers in a difficult situation when they need to stop dangerous suspects. “The only other option is to shoot the individual,” he said.

Lawyers for the prosecution have disputed the claim that McClain offered any violent resistance that would merit restraining him and using a neck hold.

Ten seconds after first encountering McClain while responding to a report of a suspicious person, Officer Nathan Woodyard put his hands on him, turned him around and said, “relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation,” as McClain tried to escape the officer's grip.

The encounter quickly escalated after one of the officers said McClain went for another officer's gun. Rosenblatt attempted and failed to get McClain in a neck hold, before Woodyard successfully applied one and the officers pinned him to the ground. He was injected with ketamine, loaded into an ambulance and suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

He was pronounced dead three days later.

The deaths of McClain, Floyd and others spurred a wave of state legislation to curb the use of carotid restraints that cut off circulation and chokeholds that cut off breathing.

Since then, 27 states including Colorado have passed some limit on the practices, according to data provided to The Associated Press by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only Tennessee and Illinois had bans in place before Floyd was killed.

Closing arguments in the trial of Roedema and Rosenblatt are scheduled for Tuesday. Woodyard’s trial is set for later this month, and paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec are scheduled for trial in November. Judge Mark Warner ruled in January that there would be separate trials to ensure fair proceedings.

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Brown reported from Billings, Montana.