3 Tacoma police officers plead not guilty to murder, manslaughter charges in death of Black man

3 Tacoma police officers plead not guilty to murder, manslaughter charges in death of Black man

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The three Tacoma, Washington, police officers charged in the March 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man, pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter charges during their Friday arraignment, just hours after they were arrested in connection with the case, according to a local affiliate report. 

Tacoma officers Christopher Burbank, 35, and Matthew Collins, 38, pleaded not guilty to their second-degree murder charges during their virtual appearances in Pierce County Superior Court. Collins also pleaded not guilty to a first-degree manslaughter charge, Q13 FOX reported.

A third officer, 32-year-old Timothy Rankine, also pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter on Friday, according to the report. 

All three officers wore coronavirus face masks and orange jail-issued jumpsuits during their hearings.

The charges stem from the March 2020 arrest and death of Ellis, 33. Tasered, handcuffed and hogtied, with his face covered by a spit hood, he did just weeks before George Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing. 

The Pierce County Medical Examiner called Ellis’ death a homicide due to a lack of oxygen caused by restraint, with an enlarged heart and methamphetamine intoxication as contributing factors.

The death made Ellis’ name synonymous with pleas for justice at protests in the Pacific Northwest. His 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.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged Burbank and Collins, who are White, after witnesses reported that they attacked Ellis without provocation, according to officials. Meanwhile, Rankine, who is Asian American, is accused of kneeling on Ellis’ back and shoulder as he died from a lack of oxygen, according to a probable cause statement.

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    Marcia Carter-Patterson, right, the mother of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, stands with her son and Ellis’ brother Matthew, left, as she speaks Thursday, May 27, 2021, at a news conference in Tacoma, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)( )

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    Signs and a cross are displayed Thursday, May 27, 2021, at the "Manny’s Garden" memorial that has been established at the intersection in Tacoma, Wash., south of Seattle, where Manuel "Manny" Ellis died on March 3, 2020, after he was restrained by police officers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)( )

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    A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel "Manny" Ellis, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash., south of Seattle. Ellis died on March 3, 2020 after he was restrained by police officers.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)( )

During Friday’s arraignment, special assistant attorney general Patty Eakes, representing the state, asked for bail to be set at $1 million, citing the severity of the charges, but defense attorneys argued that their clients had no criminal history and posed no risk of flight or danger to the community.

“Ellis was not fighting back,” the probable cause statement said, citing video recorded by three witnesses.

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

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

The Tacoma Police Union called the decision “a politically motivated witch hunt.”

“An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment,” the union said in a statement.

Burbank and Collins reported that the encounter began after they saw 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 cast Ellis as the aggressor, saying he 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 came forward with identical stories, saying the police attacked. An officer in the passenger side of a patrol car slammed his door into Ellis, knocking him down, and started beating him, they said.

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.

Ellis had a history of mental illness and addiction. In September 2019, he was found naked after trying to rob a fast-food restaurant. A sheriff’s deputy subdued him with a Taser after he refused to remain down on the ground and charged toward law enforcement.

His landlords at the sober housing where he was staying told The Seattle Times he had been doing well in recent months after embracing mental health care for his schizophrenia. He had been frequently attending church, where he was a drummer in a worship band.

At a news conference Thursday, Ellis’ family welcomed the charges but called for more work to overhaul the criminal justice system. The family is seeking $30 million in a lawsuit against the city.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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