TACOMA — Only three Washington state law enforcement officers have been charged in on-duty deaths in the last half-century. Now, just as many are set to stand trial in Tacoma, with their freedom and jobs on the line.
Jury selection begins Monday for the high-profile trial in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis that could last into December. Pierce County Superior Court officials expect such high public interest that they visited the Minneapolis court where the officers criminally charged with George Floyd’s death were tried.
Just after 11 p.m. March 3, 2020, Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, was walking back to a sober living home with raspberry-filled powdered doughnuts and a bottle of water when he encountered police, who said he was behaving erratically.
Within an hour, he died of oxygen deprivation while hogtied and wearing a nylon hood over his head. He’d been Tasered, beaten and had a series of officers take turns sitting on his back — a homicide, the Pierce County medical examiner ruled.
Forty-two months after Ellis’ death, Officers Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38, now stand charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine, 34, faces a first-degree manslaughter charge.
Prosecutors aim to prove Collins and Burbank had no legal basis to confront Ellis or to use physical force that led to his death, and that all three officers shirked their legal duty to help Ellis when he said he couldn’t breathe.
The medical examiner found a significant amount of methamphetamine in Ellis’ system, and an autopsy revealed he suffered from a heart condition. Both were noted as contributing factors in Ellis’ death and are likely to be central features of the officers’ defense.
All three officers have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and remain employed, on paid leave, by the Tacoma Police Department. Over the last three years, they’ve collected more than $1 million in salary.
Ellis’ death became a Pacific Northwest touchstone in the national outrage after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis that reverberated throughout the summer of 2020. The case helped compel changes in Washington state law, including the establishment of a state-run unit to investigate potential crimes by police and the state’s first-ever effort to fully track deaths caused by police.
The prosecution is the first against law enforcement officers under Initiative 940, which voters approved in 2018 and the Washington Legislature strengthened the next year. It lowered the bar to prosecute officers for excessive force and required officers to provide first aid to people they’ve hurt.
The trial is expected to pivot in part on eyewitness videos and audio of Ellis’ final moments that were discovered by his sister, Monét Carter-Mixon, not by police investigating his death. She found the videos after being convinced police were not providing an accurate telling of the fatal encounter. At the time of Ellis’ death, Tacoma police were not required to wear body cameras.
It is also a test of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, as he has launched a 2024 campaign for governor. The prosecution marks the first time in the state’s history that the attorney general, and not a local prosecutor, has brought charges against police officers.
Gov. Jay Inslee handed the case to Ferguson’s office and the Washington State Patrol after it was discovered that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which initially investigated the case, had a conflict of interest because one of its officers helped restrain Ellis.
Jared Ausserer, a former Pierce County prosecutor representing Collins, said the case “is politically motivated and the Attorney General’s Office is targeting these guys for a run for office.” Anne Bremner, the high-profile Seattle lawyer representing Rankine, said in an interview she agrees with Ausserer.
“All of the emotion and the sentiment out there is going to be important to convey to the 12 jurors that are deciding this,” Ausserer said. “They need to decide based on the facts, not emotion. That’s going to be a challenge for us.”
“Our job is to seek justice,” Ferguson said in a written statement. “My legal team looks forward to presenting the evidence to the jury.”
Challenges for prosecutors
The Washington Attorney General’s Office is using high-profile defense lawyer Patty Eakes, a former prosecutor who helped convict Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, to try the case.
The prosecution’s first challenge will be to convince the jury that Ellis died as a result of the officers’ actions, and not the elevated methamphetamine level in his system. Former Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark noted the drugs, combined with a heart condition, as a possible contributing factor to Ellis’ death.
Clark, who left the Medical Examiner’s Office in 2020 amid an allegation he created a hostile workplace, and the three officers who’ve been charged with Ellis’ death all are listed on the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s roster of untrustworthy witnesses.
The officers’ lawyers need to convince just one of the 12 jurors that Ellis died of an overdose or a medical cause to avoid conviction.
Ausserer said in an interview he intends to tell the jury that Collins and Burbank ended their physical contact with Ellis before his condition turned fatal, and that drugs and poor heart health were the true cause of Ellis’ death.
At least six law enforcement officers participated in restraining Ellis to various degrees, but only half of them were charged. That opens the door for the defense to blame others.
In pretrial hearings, lawyers for Collins and Burbank began pointing the finger at officers who responded after Ellis was already on the ground.
Among them were Rankine and his partner, Masiyh Ford, who held Ellis’ leg while he was hogtied, his legs bound to handcuffs behind his back. Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Gary Sanders, who was working a security detail at a college nearby, helped hold Ellis’ legs. Rankine sat on top of Ellis at that point, then another Tacoma officer, Armando Farinas, placed a nylon spit hood on Ellis’ head on the order of other officers.
The medical examiner ruled that the spit hood hampered Ellis’ breathing when it became clogged with saliva and mucus, contributing to his death. Ford, Farinas and Sanders were not charged and remain employed. Ford and Farinas were initially put on paid leave but were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation and returned to work. Sanders was never placed on leave.
Inconsistencies and videos
The officers’ defense teams face challenges of their own, including inconsistencies in the way they described their interaction with Ellis, as well as eyewitness videos that call into question the truthfulness of their accounts.
Collins and Burbank told investigators that they saw Ellis trying to open the door of a car as it passed through an intersection, and when they contacted him, he became aggressive and exhibited “superhuman strength.”
Collins told detectives that Ellis started the fight with officers by hoisting him off the ground, throwing him through the air and causing him to land on his back. But Burbank never mentioned Ellis laying hands on Collins. In fact, at the first hint that Ellis might turn aggressive, Burbank admitted using a police cruiser door to knock Ellis to the ground from behind. From there, Collins told detectives, it devolved into “just a melee.”
But two eyewitness videos captured on cellphones show the officers initiated the struggle and manhandled Ellis while he apparently raised his hands as if in surrender. As he did, Collins applied a chokehold — intending to choke Ellis unconscious, he told detectives — and Burbank repeatedly jolted Ellis with a stun gun.
Ausserer said he plans to argue that eyewitnesses — a passerby and a pizza delivery driver — did not see the start of the incident, and that physical evidence, including a powdered-sugar handprint from Ellis’ doughnuts on the police cruiser window, supports the officers’ claims that Ellis was acting aggressively.
Ausserer also intends to use Ellis’ September 2019 arrest for attempted robbery and statements he made to a counselor about his behavior when on meth to convince the jury that the officers’ claim that Ellis fought them is supported by his past actions.
At the time of his death, Ellis had been residing at a sober living home for several months while free on bail in the attempted robbery case. Court records show he was consistently passing drug tests, and people at the sober home said Ellis had engaged deeply with his church, was progressing with his sobriety and actively managing his mental health, which he’d struggled with in the past. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late 20s.
The defense will also have to contend with an audio recording from a nearby home security system that captured Ellis repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” The audio caught the response, from either Burbank or Collins: “Shut the [expletive] up, man!” Collins and Burbank denied hearing Ellis express that he was in distress.
Burbank’s lawyer, Brett Purtzer, declined to comment.
The challenge for Rankine’s defense team rests with his candor with detectives. Among the charged officers, only Rankine admitted that he heard Ellis’ last statements, even as he was sitting on a prone and hogtied Ellis.
“I was like, ‘If you’re talking to me, then you can breathe just fine,’” Rankine told detectives. Charging documents allege Rankine initially ignored medics’ orders to get off Ellis.
“The facts as have been reported in the media and on social media are quite different than what will be introduced in the courtroom,” said Bremner, Rankine’s lawyer. “All parties are created equal in the courtroom, and that includes police officers.”
All three of the officers charged in Ellis’ death are combat veterans. Rankine told detectives that when he heard cryptic clicks from Collins’ and Burbank’s police radios, he assumed the worst, expecting to find them dead or shot.
Long trial ahead
Jury selection is expected to last about two weeks, with opening statements tentatively scheduled to commence during the first week of October. The trial before Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff could stretch into December.
Collins and Burbank, charged with second-degree murder, face standard sentencing ranges from 10 to 18 years if convicted. Rankine, charged with first-degree manslaughter, faces six to eight years. Felony convictions automatically disqualify law enforcement officers in Washington.
They remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department at the discretion of Chief Avery Moore. He has said he will not review their actions for potential violations of departmental procedures until the end of the trial.
Meanwhile, Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, said she feels targeted by the officers’ defense teams. She was ordered to hand over her phone to the court so the defense could review private messages, even as she suffered health problems from a difficult childbirth. She said she views the defense teams’ focus on her as diversionary rhetoric to distract jurors from their clients’ actions.
“I really don’t have anything to do with this case, besides the information that I sought and that I found out and how I advocated for my brother,” Carter-Mixon said. “But that has nothing to do with these officers and them being like convicted or charged.”