On Thursday, a jury found Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine not guilty on all charges in the murder of Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a Black man who died in custody after complaining about being unable to breathe.
Burbank and Collins were cleared of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter after a months-long trial, while Rankine was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter. All three have entered not-guilty pleas.
The police were accused of using deadly force against Ellis, 33, during an arrest attempt in March 2020 for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” A witness who testified during the trial caught part of the arrest on camera. Ellis could also be heard sobbing out, “I can’t breathe,” on police dispatch recordings.
The cops were charged in May 2021 by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, marking the first time the state’s attorney general legally charged officers for the unlawful use of deadly force. It was the second homicide charge brought against a law enforcement officer in the state since Washingtonians approved Initiative 940 in November 2018 – legislation that makes it easier to punish police officers for reckless shootings.
The cops and their families were seen hugging one other in the courtroom moments after the decision was announced, some in tears. According to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, the cops faced up to life in prison.
Ellis’ death sparked riots in Tacoma, and it occurred just months before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked national protests against racism and police violence.
After the verdict, Matthew Ericksen, an attorney for the Ellis family, told CNN: “Manny Ellis was unarmed and walking home from a 7-Eleven with some donuts and a bottle of water when TPD officers stopped him.” He was minding his own business and posing no danger to anyone. Manny didn’t need to be jailed that night, and he didn’t need to die.”
“Make no mistake about it, the Ellis family is emotionally devastated but we will continue to seek some measure of justice for them in the form of our federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Tacoma and 6 TPD officers who we believe we should be held responsible for Manny’s death,” the statement went on to say.
According to authorities, the policemen attempted to arrest Ellis on March 3, 2020, which resulted in a violent struggle in which they tackled him and restrained him on the ground.
A driver, a neighboring doorbell camera, and police dispatch audio all recorded parts of the arrest. According to the prosecution’s probable cause statement, Ellis repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
As per the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, the cause of his death was respiratory arrest induced by hypoxia caused by physical constraint. Hypoxia is a situation in which the body lacks oxygen.
According to court filings, Burbank and Collins “tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint) to Ellis, and shot him three times with a taser, all without justification.” They also failed to render aid or summon medical assistance and placed him in “hogtie restraints,” according to the docs.
According to court filings, Rankine was accused of holding Ellis in the prone position and putting pressure on his back despite hearing the guy say he couldn’t breathe.
Ellis, according to defense attorneys, died not from the restraint but from a fatal amount of methamphetamine in his bloodstream and prior heart issues.
Two videos uploaded on social media by a local activist group in June 2020 showed Tacoma officers hitting and pinning down a Black man before he died in their custody. At the time, Ellis’s family attorney James Bible stated that the man was Ellis.
Both videos of the purported altercation are less than a minute long. One video appeared to show officers punching the man on the ground. A second video showed them holding the man down and instructing him to put his hands behind his back. It was unclear whether the video recordings were made before or after Ellis shouted “I can’t breathe” on the dispatcher audio.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards demanded that the four police officers be fired and prosecuted when the recordings aired.
Pierce County, Washington, signed a $4 million settlement agreement with Ellis’ family in March 2022. The lawsuit cited Tacoma, Pierce County, six Tacoma cops – including Burbank, Collins, and Rankine – and two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies as defendants. The lawsuits against the county and the two deputies were withdrawn as a result of the settlement.
The City of Tacoma noted in a statement that Thursday’s not-guilty verdicts “may exacerbate the pain caused by Mr. Ellis’s death.”
According to a city statement, the Tacoma Police Department is initiating an internal investigation into the three officers’ actions, which includes their testimony during their trial. The department will conclude its investigation within 24 hours, and the chief will make a decision within 10 days on whether to reprimand the three officers “up to and including termination,” according to the statement.
Following Burbank’s acquittal, his attorney, Wayne Fricke, stated, “We understand, certainly, the Ellis family is suffering and grieving, and they will continue to suffer and grieve, and we are not disregarding that… But I believe this was the right decision.”
“He’s ecstatic, as you can imagine, like all of them,” Fricke said of his client.