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Officers charged with murder in police-custody death of Manuel Ellis, Black man who said he couldn't breathe

Tacoma man's death in custody ruled homicide
Tacoma man's death in custody ruled homicide 01:24

The Washington state attorney general on Thursday charged two Tacoma police officers with murder and one with manslaughter in the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died after repeatedly telling them he couldn't breathe as he was being restrained.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed charges of second-degree murder against Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, and first-degree manslaughter against Timothy Rankine.

Witnesses reported seeing Burbank and Collins attack Ellis without provocation, according to a probable cause statement filed in Pierce County Superior Court. Rankine is accused of putting pressure on Ellis' back as he said he couldn't breathe.

Ellis, 33, died on March 3, 2020 — Tasered, handcuffed and hogtied, with his face covered by a spit hood — just weeks before George Floyd's death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing. The Pierce County medical examiner called the death of Ellis a homicide and attributed it to lack of oxygen from being restrained, with an enlarged heart and methamphetamine intoxication as contributing factors.

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An undated photo of Manuel Ellis, who died in Tacoma police custody on March 3, 2020. KIRO-TV

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.

"Ellis was not fighting back," the probable cause statement said. "All three civilian witnesses at the intersection ... state that they never saw Ellis strike at the officers."

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

Five Tacoma officers have been on paid home leave pending the charging decision, and Ferguson said the investigation is continuing. Attorneys for the defendants did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The encounter began after officers reported seeing Ellis trying to get into occupied cars at a red light. They cast Ellis as the aggressor, saying he charged as an officer exited a police car.

But two witnesses who recorded parts of the fatal interaction came forward with identical stories, saying police attacked without provocation. An officer in the passenger side of a patrol car slammed his door into Ellis, knocking him down, and then jumped on him 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.

Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who was then a detective and the spokesman for the sheriff's office, said after Ellis' death that none of the officers placed a knee on his neck or head. But one of the witness videos that later surfaced depicts just that.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Office botched the initial investigation into Ellis' death by failing to disclose for three months that one of its deputies had been involved in restraining Ellis; state law requires independent investigations. The Washington State Patrol took over, and the Attorney General's Office conducted its review based on evidence gathered by the patrol as well as its own additional investigation.

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Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine were charged in the March, 2020 death of Manuel Ellis in police custody. KIRO

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.

Ellis' death, Pierce County's botched investigation into it, and the national outcry for racial justice helped inspire Gov. Jay Inslee to convene a task force to suggest ways to guarantee independent reviews of police use of deadly force.

Last week, Inslee signed one of the nation's most ambitious packages of police accountability legislation, including outright bans on police use of chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants. The legislation also makes it easier to decertify police for bad acts — and creates an independent office to review deadly force cases.

The charged officers could face up to life in prison if convicted, but the standard sentencing range is 10 to 18 years for second-degree murder with no prior criminal history, and 6.5 to 8.5 years for manslaughter.

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