Sep 15, 2023 - News

Trial to begin of 3 officers charged in Manny Ellis killing

Candles surround a sign that says #Justice4Manny, with flowers.

Candles and signs at a vigil for Manuel Ellis, who died in March 2020 while being detained by Tacoma police officers. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

A five-year-old Washington state law that makes it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force is getting its first test, as the trial begins Monday for three officers charged in connection with the killing of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma.

Why it matters: Only four officers to date have been criminally charged under Washington's 2018 voter-approved law, which revised an earlier state statute that made it almost impossible to criminally charge police who kill in the line of duty.

Driving the news: The three Tacoma officers are the first to go to trial under the new law, which, unlike the earlier statute, doesn't require proof of "malice" or "evil intent" to hold officers criminally liable.

  • "This case is going to be huge in terms of, will we be able to hold law enforcement accountable?" Paul Benz, a lobbyist for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, told Axios.
  • The other deadly force case, involving an Auburn police officer, has yet to go to trial.

The big picture: Ellis, a Black man, died in police custody in March 2020.

  • Less than three months later, George Floyd's murder by police in Minneapolis sparked a national reckoning over officers' use of force.
  • Four officers were convicted over their roles in Floyd's death, with one officer being sentenced in 2021 to 22 1/2 years for murder.
  • The Ellis case has proceeded much more slowly.

Catch up quick: Like Floyd, Ellis in his final moments was recorded telling officers he couldn't breathe. The county medical examiner later ruled Ellis' death a homicide.

  • According to a probable cause statement, which cited video and witness statements, the three officers at various points held Ellis down on the ground with their body weight. State prosecutors said Ellis hadn't been fighting back.
  • Ellis was tased, cuffed and hogtied, with one of the officers, Timothy Rankine, continuing to pin Ellis to the ground with his body weight until the fire department arrived and found Ellis unresponsive, state prosecutors said.
  • The state attorney general's office charged Tacoma officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in connection with Ellis' death. Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Of note: The Ellis case marks the first time Washington's attorney general has filed criminal charges against officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.

  • Gov. Jay Inslee took the case out of county officials' hands after the county sheriff's office, which was initially conducting the use-of-force investigation, was later found to have had a deputy on the scene while Ellis was restrained.

What they're saying: "Our job is to seek justice," Ferguson said in a statement provided to Axios. "My legal team looks forward to presenting the evidence to the jury."

The other side: In court, attorneys for the officers are arguing that their clients' actions didn't cause Ellis' death.

  • In court filings, they note that a medical examination also found methamphetamine in Ellis' system, and evidence of a dilated heart.
  • "What I would say is this is a drug tragedy," an attorney for Collins, Casey Arbenz, told Axios, calling the amount of methamphetamine in Ellis' system "a fatal dose."
  • Arbenz said that Ellis hit the officers' car at the start of the encounter. The attorney general's account, meanwhile, says the officers struck Ellis first.

What we're watching: As jury selection gets underway Monday, Enoka Herat, policing and immigration policy program director for the ACLU of Washington, said she will be keeping her eye on the the jury's racial composition, and whether it "will be able to reflect not just the accused in this case, but also the victim."


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