State Attorney General charges three officers for death of Manuel Ellis

May 25, 2021, 5:11 PM | Updated: May 27, 2021, 10:10 pm
Manuel Ellis...
Candles and signs are seen during a vigil for Manuel Ellis. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

The state Attorney General’s Office announced Thursday that it has filed felony charges against three Tacoma police officers in the death of Manuel Ellis.

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Ellis died in Tacoma while in police custody on March 3, 2020. An autopsy by the Pierce County Medical Examiner concluded the death a homicide, but found drugs and a heart condition also contributed to Ellis’ death.

Two officers — Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins — have been charged with second-degree murder, while a third, Timothy Rankine, was charged with first-degree manslaughter charges. In total, six officers were involved.

“We look forward to trial,” the Tacoma police union said in a statement released shortly after the announcement.

Ellis had complained to officers while being restrained that he could not breathe, echoing a similar scenario that played out for George Floyd in Minnesota just two months later.

The encounter began after Burbank and Collins reported seeing Ellis trying to get into occupied cars at a red light. Ellis, recently back from church, had walked to a convenience store to get a late-night snack: powdered, raspberry-filled donuts.

The officers said Ellis punched the window of their cruiser and attacked them as they got out, according to statements from other officers cited in the charging documents.

But two witnesses who recorded parts of the fatal interaction came forward with identical stories, saying the police attacked without provocation. An officer in the passenger side of a patrol car slammed his door into Ellis, knocking him down, and then jumped on him and started beating him, they said.

Testimony from both Burbank and Collins to investigators was said to have differed in several key ways, casting doubt on their account of the night’s events.

According to Collins, Ellis lifted him off the ground “like a child” and threw him into the street. Burbank’s account leaves that detail out, describing a scuffle between Collins and Ellis in simpler terms as “a melee.”

As the conflict escalated, Collins said he attempted to employ a chokehold on Ellis, while Burbank reported discharging his Taser on him four times.

Video and accounts from eyewitnesses tell a different story. While video does show Collins holding Ellis in a chokehold from behind while Burbank discharged his Taser, Ellis appeared not to be resisting, instead holding his hands up and attempting to capitulate to the officers. Burbank also denied hearing Ellis tell officers he couldn’t breathe, contrary to video taken at the scene.

Ellis’ final words, “I can’t breathe, sir!,” were captured by a home security camera, as was the retort from one of the officers: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”

The witnesses “described seeing a casual interaction between the officers and Ellis before Burbank struck Ellis with his car door — there was no sudden, random attack by Ellis as the officers described that night to others,” the probable cause statement said.

The video the witnesses recorded corroborated that Ellis did not attempt to strike the officers, though at times he resisted their efforts to restrain him, the statement said.

Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who was then a detective and the spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said after Ellis’ death that none of the officers placed a knee on his neck or head. But one of the witness videos that later surfaced depicts just that.

Over the last year, the case has been hampered by delays. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office originally led the investigation, but Washington State Patrol took over when it was revealed that a previously unidentified Pierce County deputy was also on the scene when Ellis died.

Five Tacoma officers have been on paid home leave pending the charging decision, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the investigation is continuing.

Ellis’ family filed a $30 million wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Tacoma in August 2020. The family called on the state in April to take over the investigation.

The case marks the first time the attorney general’s office has charged police officers with unlawful use of deadly force, Ferguson said.

Photos: Vigil in Tacoma for Manuel Ellis

“He had participated in his church band as a drummer, he had spent time talking to his family on the phone, he had spent time with several other people during that day just prior to this event,” the family’s attorney James Bible said. “And nobody indicated that there was any problem with Manny Ellis.”

“Nobody indicated that he was being aggressive or demonstrating any sort of bizarre behavior, or anything to that effect,” he added.

The Associated Press’ Gene Johnson contributed to this report.

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State Attorney General charges three officers for death of Manuel Ellis