Accused Tacoma officer testifies in trial over Manny Ellis’ death
Dec 5, 2023, 1:52 AM | Updated: 4:18 am
(Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)
One of the three Tacoma police officers charged with killing Manuel “Manny” Ellis took the stand Monday, defending his actions but describing Ellis’ death as the “worst possible outcome” of the stop in 2020.
While on the stand, Officer Matthew Collins said Ellis was aggressive from the start of the encounter the night of March 3, 2020, on a street corner along the border of South Tacoma and unincorporated Pierce County.
Less than an hour after his initial contact with Collins and Officer Christopher “Shane” Burbank, Ellis was declared dead. In that time, he was struck by fists and elbows, placed in a neck hold, jolted three times with a Taser, handcuffed with ankle hobbles strapped to his wrists behind his back, had a nylon spit hood placed over his face and was knelt or sat on by multiple officers.
Despite this, Collins testified that he never expected Ellis to die on the night they struggled, and “in my wildest nightmares, I never expected the state to come after us for this.”
Earlier coverage: Trial of Tacoma officers accused in Ellis’ death reaches halfway point
Collins describes the night of March 3, 2020
Collins walked the jury through his recollection of the night, saying that Ellis was wandering in an intersection and appeared to be trying to get into other people’s cars when the officers called him over.
As Ellis approached, “I immediately knew something was wrong. His eyes were super wide. And he was sweating profusely. And it was a cold night,” Collins said.
He claimed Ellis appeared to be on drugs and became “fixated” on Collins’ partner, Burbank. Collins said as a police officer, he is taught to interpret body language and the way Ellis was looking concerned him.
“There’s a way someone looks at you when you’re about to be in a fight,” Collins said.
In the days after the incident, Collins and Burbank told detectives Ellis threatened to punch Burbank and slammed his hand against their police cruiser. Collins got out to confront Ellis, which began what the officer described as a “melee.”
“As soon as I get to the front of the vehicle, he takes his focus off of Burbank and comes right at me and grabs him by my vest and picks me up and throws me backwards in the intersection,” Collins said in the courtroom Monday. He also claimed Ellis hit him.
No one else present at the incident recalls seeing any of that, including Burbank. Eyewitnesses described Collins and Burbank as the initial aggressors, saying Burbank threw open a car door and knocked Ellis to the ground as Ellis attempted to walk away.
Prosecutors have also presented video evidence to support their argument that Collins and Burbank used excessive force against Ellis as they struck him, shocked him with a taser multiple times, and used a chokehold to bring him to the ground, where they hogtied Ellis facedown.
It was the restraint that ultimately killed Ellis, according to the Pierce County medical examiner, who ruled the death a homicide due to oxygen deprivation. The officers’ defense attorneys have claimed a high level of methamphetamine in Ellis’ system and a heart condition were ultimately responsible for his death.
Collins told the jury he regretted the loss of a “precious human life,” but reiterated he felt he and Burbank were in a fight for their lives.
“In this case, undoubtedly (Ellis) was in the wrong, but at the end of the day his mother lost a child, his sister lost a brother,” Collins said.
Collins said he and Burbank faced an intense battle to restrain Ellis. Collins said even after they had him handcuffed, Ellis kept moving his lower body and the officers did not believe they had control.
Collins faces cross-examination
During cross-examination, Collins told special prosecutor Patty Eakes he did not hear Ellis say multiple times that he could not breathe.
But Collins said even if he had heard it, he would not have acted differently.
“He’s fighting us. We can deal with the air thing after we get him in handcuffs,” Collins said.
Eakes pointed out Ellis can be heard on a nearby home surveillance video pleading that he couldn’t breathe, and someone responded: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.” At the time, Burbank and Collins were the only officers present.
“If it happened when only Burbank and I were there, it was me, because I’ve never heard Officer Burbank cuss,” Collins responded. “But I don’t have an independent recollection of saying that.” He told Eakes he experienced “auditory exclusion,” a failure to hear sounds during a stressful situation.
National perspective: Officers on trial in deadly arrest of Manny Ellis, a case reminiscent of George Floyd
Collins and Burbank are charged with second-degree murder and they, along with Officer Timothy Rankine, are all charged with first-degree manslaughter. Rankine and his partner were the first backup officers to arrive on the scene, where Rankine told detectives he sat on Ellis’ back until medics arrived, even after Ellis said he could not breathe. It is not yet clear whether Burbank or Rankine will take the stand in their own defense.
All three officers have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department on paid leave.