Jury Acquits Officers in Death of Black Man

Manuel Ellis was beaten, shocked, and restrained facedown on a Tacoma sidewalk
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 21, 2023 6:35 PM CST
Jury Acquits Officers in Death of Black Man
A photo of Manny Ellis is displayed while Special Assistant Attorney General Patty Eakes gives closing arguments during the trial of three Tacoma Police officers at Pierce County Superior Court on Dec. 11.   (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)

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 facedown 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. The jury found the three not guilty on all counts, the AP reports. 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.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office prosecuted the case, said, "I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them." The Ellis family immediately left the courtroom. 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." The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation, but lawyers for the officers said a high level of methamphetamine in Ellis' system and a heart irregularity were to blame. 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. The officers later told investigators that Ellis attacked them and was violent. Witnesses testified that they saw no such thing. "When I saw Manuel not doing anything, and him get attacked like that, it wasn't right," witness Sara McDowell, 26, said at 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." 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."

(More Tacoma stories.)

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