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3 Wash. police officers acquitted of charges in Manuel Ellis’ death

The jury considered second-degree murder charges against officers Matthew Collins and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, and manslaughter charges against Officer Timothy Rankine, as well as Collins and Burbank


Tacoma Police officer Christopher “Shane” Burbank gets a hug from his attorney Wayne Fricke after he is declared not guilty for any charges related to the March 2020 killing of Manny Ellis, in Pierce County Superior Court on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Tacoma, Washington. Officers Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine were both declared not guilty for all charges regarding Ellis’ death. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Ellen M. Banner/TNS

By Claire Whitcomb, Sydney Brownstone, Lulu Ramadan, Patrick Malone and Alex Yoon-Hendricks
The Seattle Times

TACOMA, Wash.— A Pierce County jury Thursday acquitted three Tacoma police officers charged in the death of Manuel Ellis, concluding a grueling, historic trial that tested the state’s new police accountability law.

The jury considered second-degree murder charges against officers Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38, and manslaughter charges against Officer Timothy Rankine, 35, as well as Collins and Burbank.

The acquittal marked the dramatic conclusion of a nearly four-year saga that began March 3, 2020, when Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died in a south Tacoma intersection after struggling with and repeatedly telling police he couldn’t breathe.

In the turbulent summer of 2020, Ellis’ name was invoked alongside George Floyd’s during sustained protests in the Pacific Northwest demanding more equitable policing.

In the courtroom, the officers hugged their lawyers after the verdict was read, while Ellis’ family quickly left the courthouse. When Collins’ lawyer asked Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff if they could leave, the judge said, “I would just be careful. A lot of emotions are running high right now.”

The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from physical restraint. Lawyers for the officers argued at trial that the high level of methamphetamine in Ellis’ system combined with a heart condition killed him and that the officers were justified in aggressively subduing Ellis because he fought them with what they described as extraordinary strength.

The jury, with seven men and five women, deliberated for a total of three days before alerting the court of their verdict Thursday, although the composition of the jury changed twice this week as alternates were swapped in. Nine jurors are white, two are Black and one identifies as mixed-race, Asian and white.

Only six deaths at the hands of law enforcement have resulted in charges against police officers in the state over the past century. The last time three police officers were charged in Washington for a death was 85 years ago.

Jurors did not linger at the courthouse, but attorneys for the prosecution and the officers debriefed them about the deliberations.

Casey Arbenz, who represents Collins, said, “For the officers, this is just a huge, huge sigh of relief.” The verdict is the result of the jury “looking beyond the short snippets of video and witness statements but actually looking into the evidence.”

“What the jury saw was that this really wasn’t a case; they could never have been charged. It should never have been brought,” he said in the courthouse lobby.

The Washington Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said it would not be making prosecutors available to the media.

In a post on the social media platform X, Attorney General Bob Ferguson thanked his legal team. “I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them.”

Leslie Cushman, founder of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and architect of Initiative 940, Washington’s landmark police accountability initiative passed by voters in 2018, said she was “exceedingly disappointed” by the verdict.

“Mr. Ellis’ criminal history, medical history, personal history was in front of everyone to see, and we never heard of the misconduct of police or their training issues. It was very unfair.”

Thursday evening, Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, led protesters through Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood to “Manny’s Mural,” a huge artistic rendering of him on the side of a storefront. “No justice, no peace,” they chanted, laying flowers and candles at the mural, as Carter-Mixon and her mother hugged.

James Bible, one of the lawyers representing the Ellis’ family in a civil suit against the city of Tacoma, told the crowd with a megaphone that the officers “are not good men and an acquittal does not mean innocence.”

Key questions

The 10-week trial focused on several key questions: how the fatal struggle started, how much force was necessary to subdue Ellis and how officers responded when Ellis said at least five times that he couldn’t breathe.

On the night of the fatal struggle, Collins and Burbank, both five-year veterans of the Tacoma Police Department, say they saw Ellis reach for the door of a passing car in an intersection, and when they tried to question Ellis about it, he turned aggressive.

Collins, testifying in his own defense, said Ellis demonstrated “superhuman strength” by lifting him off the ground and throwing him through the air. Burbank, who did not testify at trial, had told detectives a slightly different version.

Their accounts were undermined by three eyewitnesses who testified at trial. Two of them recorded cellphone videos of Collins and Burbank roughly handling Ellis and testified that Ellis was walking away from the police vehicle when he appeared to be summoned back. They said Ellis did nothing to provoke Burbank to strike him with the vehicle door or the violence they recorded.

Their videos showed Ellis being struck by both officers, placed in a neck hold by Collins, stunned three times with a Taser by Burbank and then pinned in a prone position under the officers’ weight.

But attorneys for the officers attacked their credibility, arguing they didn’t see how the fatal struggle started.

Burbank’s lawyer, Brett Purtzer, asked eyewitness Sara McDowell about an online spat she’d had with a supporter of the officers in which McDowell wrote that she was “lying” to testify against the officers. McDowell said that was a typo, and she intended to write that she was “dying” to tell her story.

After the verdict, Wayne Fricke, Burbank’s lawyer, said jurors had “serious questions about the credibility of the civilian witnesses.”

The detention and violent efforts to restrain Ellis — even after some evidence showed he was subdued — were the basis for the murder charges. The manslaughter charges alleged Collins and Burbank acted recklessly with the knowledge that their actions carried a substantial risk of death to Ellis, mainly by bearing down on Ellis while he was on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back.

The eyewitness videos and a nearby home security camera captured dramatic audio of Ellis saying he couldn’t breathe at least five times. Collins and Burbank denied they ever heard him say those words, claiming Ellis only made sounds that they compared to an animal.

However, the videos grabbed a moment when Ellis can be heard pleading for air and someone responds: “Shut the [expletive] up, man!” Collins admitted on the witness stand that he said it, although he claimed not to have heard what Ellis specifically said.

The manslaughter charge against Rankine, who was with the first backup unit to arrive at the scene, was based on his actions after Ellis was already handcuffed. Rankine testified that he sat on Ellis’ back to control him and remained there even after he heard Ellis say he couldn’t breathe.

Rankine’s partner, Masyih Ford, who was not charged in Ellis’ death, testified that Ellis said he couldn’t breathe in the presence of Burbank and Collins.

Ellis’ struggles with mental health and addiction were laid bare in testimony that represented the first courtroom test of I-940, which removed “malicious intent” as a prerequisite for charging police officers with crimes for causing on-duty deaths.

Chushcoff was criticized by Ellis’ family and their supporters for allowing extensive testimony about Ellis’ drug use, including his 2015 and 2019 arrests while high on methamphetamine. The defense argued Ellis’ enlarged heart, combined with his drug use, were the real cause of death.

Fricke, Burbank’s lawyer, said jurors said those arguments were important in the verdict. “What I heard from them was No. 1, the cause of death, that was an issue.”

Reactions to the verdict

Reactions to the verdict in the closely watched trial moved swiftly. Teresa Taylor, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said she cried with relief after hearing the verdict.

“I hope that we can we can start accepting that law enforcement in our state are very well trained. They’re highly professional,” she said. “And they are asked to do tremendously difficult, dangerous things. Oftentimes, in the worst environments.”

State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, who has worked on criminal justice reform, said she hopes the public will not lose faith in the state’s ability to hold police accountable.

“I am scared — and don’t use that word lightly — but I’m scared for what this tells our community members who are begging to be seen,” she said. “It exposes how far behind we are.”

Roger Rogoff, director of the state’s recently created Office of Independent Investigations, said he did not want to comment directly on the jury’s verdict but expressed sympathy for the Ellis family and empathy for the officers.

Rogoff, whose office is tasked with investigating police shootings, said, “I’m just hopeful that the community can move forward and that we can do these investigations better than they’ve been done in the past.”

Cushman said she didn’t know what this verdict means for police accountability moving forward.

“I believe that if we had a verdict that held these officers accountable, we may have had some momentum that would have changed police culture,” she said. “We are left without accountability for what many of us think was brutal, unnecessary, violent behavior. We’re appalled at the verdict.”


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