TACOMA, Wash. – Opening statements are set to begin Tuesday in the trial of three police officers in Tacoma, Washington, accused in the death of Manny Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man who was punched, shocked with a Taser, put in a chokehold and held face down on the sidewalk as he pleaded, “can’t breathe, sir.”
Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, both white, are charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, is charged with manslaughter for kneeling on Ellis’ back as the man struggled to breathe with his face on the ground.
It’s the first trial under a 5-year-old Washington state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police who wrongfully use deadly force.
All three officers have pleaded not guilty. The court completed two weeks of jury selection on Monday.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide and said it was caused by a lack of oxygen during the physical restraint.
Lawyers for the officers hired experts who said the death was caused by his use of methamphetamine on the night of his death, chronic drug use and pre-existing medical conditions. Prosecutors have objected to the expert reports.
Video evidence will be a central part of the case against the officers.
Ellis, 33, was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven on the night of March 3, 2020, when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light. Collins and Burbank sat inside.
After what witnesses said appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers, Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door, knocking Ellis down. The officers tackled and punched Ellis. One stunned him with a Taser while the other held him in a neck restraint.
Rankine arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed, face-down. He knelt on Ellis’ upper back as the man pleaded for breath.
Police said Ellis had tried to open the door of another vehicle at the intersection, struck the window of their cruiser and swung his fists at them, but witnesses said they observed no such things.
The three civilian witnesses — a woman in one car, a man in another, and a pizza delivery driver in a third car — all said they never saw Ellis attempt to strike the officers, according to a probable cause statement filed by the Washington attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case.
Video, including cellphone footage shot by the witnesses and surveillance video from a doorbell camera nearby, variously showed Ellis raising his hands in an apparent gesture of surrender and addressing the officers as “sir” while telling them he can’t breathe. One officer is heard responding, “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”
The trial in Pierce County Superior Court, which will run four days a week, is expected to last until early December.