A jury cleared three Washington state police officers of all criminal charges Thursday in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained face-down on a Tacoma sidewalk as he pleaded for breath.
Two of the officers — Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38 — had been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while Timothy Rankine, 34, was charged with manslaughter. Their attorneys argued that Ellis died from a lethal amount of methamphetamine that was in his system as well as a preexisting heart condition, not from the officers' actions, and the jury found the three not guilty on all counts.
There was a gasp from the gallery when the first not-guilty verdict was read. Rankine sat forward in his seat and wiped his eyes, while Collins hugged his lawyer.
Matthew Ericksen, a lawyer representing the Ellis family, said it was hard to convey how devastating the verdict was for the family and community.
“The biggest reason why I personally think this jury found reasonable doubt is because the defense was essentially allowed to put Manny Ellis on trial,” Ericksen said via email. “The defense attorneys were allowed to dredge up Manny’s past and repeat to the jury again and again Manny’s prior arrests in 2015 and 2019. That unfairly prejudiced jurors against Manny.”
Ellis was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven in Tacoma, about 30 miles south of Seattle, late on March 3, 2020, when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light, with Collins and Burbank inside.
The officers claimed they saw Ellis try to open the door of a passing car at the intersection and he became aggressive when they tried to question him about it. Collins testified that Ellis demonstrated “superhuman strength” by lifting him off the ground and throwing him through the air.
But three witnesses who testified said they saw no such thing, reporting that they did not see Ellis try to strike or do anything that would provoke the officers. After what appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers, who are both white, Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door, knocking Ellis down, they said.
The witnesses — one of whom yelled for the officers to stop attacking Ellis — and a doorbell surveillance camera captured video of parts of the encounter. The video showed Ellis with his hands up in a surrender position as Burbank shot a Taser at his chest and Collins wrapped an arm around his neck from behind.
Among the many other officers who responded was Rankine, who arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed face-down and knelt on his upper back.
Video captured Ellis addressing the officers as “sir” while telling them he couldn’t breathe. One officer is heard responding, “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”
“When I saw Manuel not doing anything, and him get attacked like that, it wasn’t right,” witness Sara McDowell, 26, said at the trial. “I’d never seen police do anything like that. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It was scary. It wasn’t OK.”
Rankine also testified, calling Ellis’ death a tragedy. He was pressing his knees into Ellis’ back when Ellis pleaded for breath.
“The only response at that point that I could think of is, ‘If you can talk to me, you can still breathe,’” Rankine said.
Lawyers for the defendants did not immediately return calls or emails from The Associated Press seeking comment. The Seattle Times quoted Collins’ attorney, Casey Arbenz, as saying the verdict was “a huge sigh of relief” and reflected that the jurors were willing to look beyond the video.
The officers “should never have been charged,” Arbenz said.
Ellis’ death became a touchstone for racial justice demonstrators in the Pacific Northwest, but it also coincided with the first U.S. outbreak of COVID-19 at a nursing home in nearby Kirkland and did not garner the attention that the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis did nearly three months later.
The trial, which lasted more than two months, was the first under a 5-year-old state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force.
As the sun went down Thursday, a crowd that included family members of Ellis gathered near a mural of him in Tacoma, temporarily blocking an intersection. “No justice, no peace,” they chanted. About 100 people attended an evening vigil at the mural.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement that he was grateful for the jury, the court and his legal team “for their extraordinary hard work and dedication.”
“I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them,” he said.
The Ellis family immediately left the courtroom and planned to speak at a news conference later. The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability said in a statement that “the not guilty verdict is further proof the system is broken, failing the very people it should be serving.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, credited the attorney general for pursuing the case after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office botched the initial investigation by failing to disclose that one of its deputies had been involved in restraining Ellis. That controversy helped prompt lawmakers to create a new independent office to investigate police use of force.
“This case began when the Ellis family experienced a profound loss that was not properly investigated,” Inslee said in a statement. “A full airing of the evidence was important for all sides in this tragedy and that’s what happened here.”
The City of Tacoma said in a statement that the verdicts will not affect an internal police department investigation and once its findings are approved by Chief Avery Moore, he’ll make any decisions about possible discipline, “up to and including termination.” That is expected to happen within the next two weeks.
“I share the depth of emotion that many of you are experiencing right now,” Mayor Victoria Woodards told a news conference. “I personally commit, along with every member of your City Council and with our city manager and our police chief, to a just, transparent and safer Tacoma for all of our residents.”
The Ellis family settled a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Pierce County, which is home to Tacoma, for $4 million last year.
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