April 24, 2024

Jury acquits three Washington state officers in the death of a black man who told them he couldn’t breathe

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A jury on Thursday acquitted three Washington state police officers of all criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and left face down on a Tacoma sidewalk held as he begged for breath .

Two of the officers – Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38 – were charged with murder and manslaughter, while Timothy Rankine, 34, was charged with manslaughter. The jury found the three innocent on all counts.

There was a gasp from the audience as the first not guilty verdict was read. Rankine sat forward in his chair and wiped his eyes as Collins hugged his lawyer.

Matthew Ericksen, an attorney representing the Ellis family, said it is difficult to convey how devastating the verdict was for the family and the community.

“The biggest reason why I personally think this jury found reasonable doubt is because the defense essentially got to put Manny Ellis on trial,” Ericksen said via email. “The attorneys were allowed to dig up Manny’s past and repeat to the jury over and over again Manny’s previous arrests in 2015 and 2019. That unfairly biased the jurors against Manny.”

As the sun set, about 30 people gathered at the Manuel Ellis mural in Tacoma, shut down an intersection and chanted, “No justice, no peace.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement that he was grateful to 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 evidence that the system is broken and failing the people it is supposed to serve.”

Roger Rogoff, director of the state’s newly created Office of Independent Investigations, which is charged with investigating police shootings, said he would not immediately comment on the verdict but expressed condolences for the Ellis family.

“I continue to feel empathy and sympathy for the family of Manny Ellis,” Rogoff said. “Anyone who loses a child in this way is tragic and will live with it forever. My heart and that of our office goes out to them. “I am also aware that the law enforcement officers involved are also facing significant consequences, which is why I am pleased that the process is over for all involved.”

The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation, but attorneys for the officers said high levels of methamphetamine in Ellis’ system and a heart defect were the causes.

Witnesses — one of whom shouted for the officers to stop assaulting Ellis — and a doorbell surveillance camera captured video of parts of the encounter on the night of March 3, 2020. The video showed Ellis with his hands up in a surrender position as Burbank shot one shot. Taser to his chest and Collins wrapped an arm around his neck from behind.

The officers later told investigators that Ellis had attacked them and was violent. Witnesses stated that they had seen no such thing.

“When I saw Manuel not doing anything and him being attacked like that, it wasn’t right,” witness Sara McDowell, 26, said during the trial. ‘I’ve never seen the police do anything like that. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It was scary. It wasn’t okay.”

Collins testified that he regretted Ellis’ death but would not have done anything differently. He said he never heard Ellis repeatedly say he couldn’t breathe, and he claimed Ellis started the confrontation by lifting Collins off the ground and throwing him on his back, something no other witness saw.

Another officer, Rankine, called Ellis’ death a tragedy. He pressed his knees against Ellis’ back as Ellis begged for air.

“The only answer I could think of at that moment is, ‘If you can talk to me, you can still breathe,’” Rankine said in testimony.

FILE - A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel
FILE – A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel “Manny” Ellis in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, on May 27, 2021. Ellis died on March 3, 2020, after being restrained by police officers. Jury selection will begin Monday, September 18, 2023 in the trial of the three Tacoma police officers charged in his death. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Ellis’ death became a touchstone for racial justice protesters 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 draw the attention of George’s killing Floyd by police in Minneapolis. done almost three months later.

The trial, which lasted more than two months, was the first under a five-year-old state law intended to make it easier to prosecute police accused of unlawful use of deadly force.

Ellis was walking home with donuts from a 7-Eleven when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light, with Collins and Burbank inside.

After what witnesses said appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers, Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door and knocked Ellis down. The officers, both white, tackled Ellis and beat him, one stunning him with a Taser while the other held him in a neck restraint.

Among the many other officers who responded was Rankine, who arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed face down and kneeling on the man’s upper back as he begged for air.

Video shows Ellis addressing officers as “sir” as he told them he couldn’t breathe. An officer is heard replying: “Shut up, man.”

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