Three officers charged in killing of Manuel Ellis, despite autopsy showing fatal amount of meth in criminal’s body

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TACOMA, WA –  Three Tacoma, Washington, police officers have been charged in the death of Manuel Ellis, a black man who died last year after he was handcuffed and restrained.

The investigation has been plagued for over a year with conflicting evidence. Law enforcement sources described Ellis as a violent aggressor who attacked the police, and witnesses claimed police attacked Ellis without provocation.

Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were charged with second-degree murder, and Officer Timothy Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter, the state attorney general has announced.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the charges in Pierce County Superior Court Thursday.

This is the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, and just the second time homicide charges have been filed in Washington against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018.

Ellis was killed on March 3, 2020, in Tacoma while being detained by Tacoma Police. The investigation was originally handled by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office until it was discovered that Pierce County Sheriff’s personnel were involved in the incident.

Subsequently, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Washington State Patrol to investigate Ellis’ death and referred the charging decision to the Attorney General.

The charges faced vigorous opposition from the Tacoma Police Union, who said the officers followed the law and their training:

“We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt. We look forward to trial. An unbiased jury will find that the officers broke no laws and, in fact, acted in accordance with the law, their training, and Tacoma Police Department policies.

“An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment. Like every community member, our officers are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

According to the charging document, Ellis, 33, was stopped by police while he was walking home. Authorities said at the time that he was alleged to have been harassing a woman at an intersection.

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Police said Ellis, under the influence of methamphetamine, ran up to officers and began pounding on the police car for no reason. Officers said that when one officer exited the vehicle, Ellis grabbed him and threw him to the ground.

However, witnesses said the officers were unprovoked and attacked Ellis, punching him and slamming him to the ground, according to the arrest affidavit.

The document goes on to say that officers hogtied Ellis as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”

The charging document, which listed the witnesses by initials only, said:

“S.M. and K.L. remember that when they stopped at the red light, Ellis was facing them and walking along the sidewalk toward their location.  As Ellis walked by the police car, he stopped and appeared to briefly interact with the officers as they sat in their car.  It looked to S.M. and K.L. like just a casual conversation, almost as if ‘the officers knew him from somewhere maybe,’ S.M. would later say. 

“Both S.M. and K.L. remember seeing a peaceful, apparently respectful conversation, with no signs of aggression from Ellis.  After that exchange, which S.M. estimated lasted about ‘10 to 15 seconds,’ Ellis turned away from the officers and began to walk away.”

Witnesses said that as Ellis walked away, the officers exited their police car and attacked the man:

“The officers did not let Ellis walk away.  Instead, as both S.M. and K.L. described witnessing, Burbank abruptly swung open the passenger door of the car, striking Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees.  S.C. similarly described seeing the passenger door to the police car open suddenly and then seeing Ellis fall to the ground.

“S.M. and K.L. then saw Burbank emerge from the passenger side of the car and get on top of Ellis as Ellis tried to get back up.  All three of the witnesses described then seeing the driver of the police car, Collins, open his door and run around the front of the car towards Ellis.”

At this point, two of the witnesses began recording the incident on their cell phones. The incident was also captured on a nearby residence’s doorbell camera and on police radio traffic.

The video, according to the complaint, shows Burbank slamming Ellis to the pavement. The video then shows Collins striking Ellis in the head with his fist. Burbank then draws his Taser.

In the doorbell camera video, Ellis can be heard screaming: “I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe,” followed by an officer saying: “Shut the fuck up.”

At this point, one witness told investigators she began shouting:

Hey!  Stop!  Oh my god, stop hitting him!  Stop hitting him!  Just arrest him.”

The complaint describes Collins wrapping his arm around the front of Ellis’ neck, as Burbank Tased Ellis.

The witnesses stated that Ellis never fought back and never struck the officers. The video depicts Ellis struggling at times against the officers’ restraints but does not show Ellis attempting to strike the officers at any point.

After being tased, the video shows Ellis motionless with Collins’s arm still applying pressure to this neck. Collins allowed Ellis to fall limb to the ground, and then pushed his face into the pavement, according to the complaint.

Rankine arrived at the scene shortly after the initial encounter, according to the statement. Although Ellis was already in handcuffs, Rankine reportedly put all of his weight on him – his right knee on the top of his spine and his left knee on his lower back.

The complaint said:

“After applying pressure to Ellis’s back, Rankine recalled hearing Ellis ‘making really strange animal grunting noises’, and then hearing him say in a ‘very calm, normal voice’ that he could not breathe,”

“Rankine responded that ‘if you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine.’”

Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodards, said that the arrests of the officers came following an extensive investigation:

“I know it has taken much, much longer to get to this point than any of us ever expected or wanted. But I also believe it allows for the thorough independent review that Manny Ellis’s family and the Tacoma community deserved.”

Last June, officers Collins, Burbank, and Rankine were placed on administrative leave.

The county medical examiner’s office reported that Ellis died due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint. Other factors that contributed to his death included fatal levels of methamphetamine in his system. He also had heart disease.

The medical examiner’s report read:

“Death, therefore, is certified as being due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint with contributing conditions of methamphetamine intoxication and a dilated heart.”

Although the medical examiner ruled the manner of death as homicide, he said:

“An argument could be made that the extremely high methamphetamine concentration should be considered the primary factor.”

Investigators initially said Ellis appeared to be experiencing excited delirium during the incident. Excited delirium is a syndrome sometimes characterized as a potentially fatal state of extreme agitation often caused by drugs like methamphetamines.

 

 

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