May 21, 2024 10:58 pm

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Tacoma Officers found not guilty of Manuel Ellis in-custody death

TACOMA, Wash., December 21, 2023—A jury found three Tacoma officers – Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine – not guilty of all charges in the nearly four year-long case involving the death of 33-year-old Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a black man who died in-custody in 2020.

“Regardless of how people feel about today’s verdict, everyone should remember this case began when the Ellis family experienced a profound loss that was not properly investigated,” Governor Jay Inslee released in a statement shortly after the verdict. “A full airing of the evidence was important for all sides in this tragedy and that’s what happened here thanks to the Attorney General’s Office. These events also led to the creation of the state Office of Independent Investigations, a key piece of how we improve justice and accountability in Washington state.

“We can respect our judicial system without diminishing the fact our society has more to do. Today’s outcome will no doubt spark relief for some and immense pain for others. In moments such as these, our discussions will only be as profound as the respect we can muster for one another.”

Manuel Ellis
Mural of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma. SOURCE: NAACP of Tacoma.

The officers were being tried for unlawfully using deadly force after allegedly stopping Ellis for attempting to open car doors of occupied vehicles back in March of 2020. The attempted arrest led to a physical altercation, according to police, resulting in tackling him to the ground and restraining him. Part of the arrest was recorded by a witness who testified in court Thursday and Ellis could be heard on police radio saying he couldn’t breathe.

Ellis’ initial cause of death was determined to be respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Manuel Ellis
Manuel “Manny” Ellis.

The incident occurred just two months before Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd after pinning his throat to the ground with his knee. In striking, eerie, resemblance Floyd’s last words were: “I can’t breathe” – which became a rallying slogan for protests that erupted across the nation.

Also like Floyd’s death, Ellis’ in-custody death sparked protests in and around Tacoma resurfacing the historical concern for racism and excessive use of force of Police Departments in the country.

Manuel Ellis
Three officers acquitted of Manuel Ellis’ death: (L-R) Tacoma police officers Matthew Collins, Timothy Rankine and Christopher Burbank. SOURCE: WSP

Washington State Attorney General Bob Furguson charged the officers with first-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in May 2021—the first time in the state’s history when a state attorney general charged officers for deadly use of force. Also, in the following years Washington State policy makers adopted House Bills 1310 and 1054 which went into effect July 15, 2021, and re-codified police officers in Washington’s ability to exercise deadly force.

“I want to start by thanking the jury and court staff for their service. I also want to thank the members of my legal team for their extraordinary hard work and dedication. I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them,” AG Ferguson released in a statement on Thursday’s trial verdict in the death of Manuel Ellis.

Manuel Ellis
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards (center) held a press conference on December 21, 2023, after the verdict. SOURCE: Snapshot from City of Tacoma Facebook live feed.

The City of Tacoma held a press conference Thursday night addressing the Tacoma Officers verdict where Tacoma Mayor, Victoria Woodards, opened with a few words.

“This is a significant moment of deep consequence for everyone in our community. There are no words that are adequate for this moment and any statement made today are sure to disappoint some,” said Victoria Woodards, Tacoma Mayor, at a press release Thursday night. “While words may be inadequate I need to speak first to the friends and family of Manuel Ellis; my heart breaks for you and I want to take this moment to acknowledge the immeasurable pain and loss that his death has caused. We are hoping for strength and comfort as you navigate through this very challenging time.”

Mayor Woodards, who is Black, continued that the verdict elicited a wide range of emotions to her and the community both, while acknowledging the “anger, the distrust, the doubt, the fear, the hurt and the exhaustion that we as Black people have experienced as the result of the history of policing in this country.” She emphasized that the Tacoma Police Department will continue to trial continue its commitment to a “just, transparent, and safer Tacoma.”

Back in 2020 Mayor Woodards called for the firing and prosecution of the three officers involved.

Elizabeth Paulie, City Manager of Tacoma, took the podium to update the public on the administrative process of the city’s own internal investigation. With the conclusion of the testimony of this case, internal affairs immediately took the necessary steps to begin finalizing the city’s internal investigation of violation of Tacoma Police Department policies. This process will conclude within 24-hours.

“In my role as City Manager I want to be clear that I stand with my Mayor and with the city council in their concern for accountability as well as the broader concern in how we use the power that we hold in serving this community. We can succeed in serving this community only when we develop the trust with this community in the exercise of that power,” said Paulie.

City staff did not take any questions from press out of respect for Ellis’ family.

According to court documents the three Tacoma Officers involved in Ellis’ death tackled him to the ground and “struck him multiple times.” They also failed to call medical assistance and tied him up in hogtie restraints. Court documents continued to say that the officers held him in a prone position despite hearing him complain about not being able to breathe.

Pierce County reached a $4 million settlement with the Ellis family back in March of 2022.

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