Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a Black man in Tacoma, died after police restrained him as he walked home from a convenience store in March 2020. In a quest to uncover what really happened that night, his sister discovered there was more to the story.
The Walk Home, a new podcast from The Seattle Times and KNKX Public Radio, examines Ellis’ death while being restrained by police, the official investigation as well as his sister’s unique parallel investigation, and how the case fits into the racial justice movement of 2020. New episodes will be published weekly beginning Sept. 7.
Seattle Times investigative reporter Patrick Malone has covered the case’s developments for more than two years, examining the flawed police investigation into Ellis’ death, the role of Pierce County’s mental health system and the historic decision to criminally charge three Tacoma officers.
Malone worked with KNKX reporters Kari Plog, Mayowa Aina and Will James to find answers to lingering questions about the case, which became a focal point in the racial justice protests of 2020.
“What really stuck out about this story was how jarring the details were, but how little attention it got on a broader scale,” Plog said. “It was something that people locally really cared about, but I was surprised that it didn’t really catch fire nationally, especially because of the point in time that this happened.”
The podcast’s narrative is anchored by Monèt Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ younger sister. Suspicious of the police account of Ellis’ death, she found video and eyewitnesses that undercut officers’ initial statements and changed the course of the police investigation.
“What makes this story unique is Monèt’s role in it,” Malone said. “She was facing the loss of her person, raising five kids by herself, struggling to stay employed and dealing with a global pandemic in its early stages. She set out to find answers, and what she brought back changed history in Washington state.”
A slow trickle of information has revealed conflicts of interest within the investigation and additional officers who participated in restraining Ellis. The three officers charged with felonies for Ellis’ killing have pleaded not guilty; a high-profile criminal trial is set for next year.
“We agonize over how to tell this story in a way that is clear and honest and compelling and fair,” James said. “We understand that there are real stakes, and that has caused us to think really hard about how we report this case. We don’t want to make any mistakes.”
Ellis’ case straddles a unique point in history, James said. He died almost three months before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, before protesters filled Seattle streets and demanded racial justice. Like Floyd, Ellis gasped, “I can’t breathe, sir!” as an officer restrained him.
Lawmakers cited his death as they passed a sweeping set of police accountability reforms in 2021. New legislation bans chokeholds and neck restraints, which were factors in Ellis’ death, and requires that officers intervene if they witness colleagues using excessive force.
“This allows us to see what conditions were when [Ellis] was still alive, then the important seismic changes that have occurred since his death,” Malone said. “We’re able to get a bigger picture of what created the momentum around summer 2020 and whether that’s really going to have long-term traction or not.”
It was important to center the story in Tacoma, Plog and Aina said. They both grew up in Pierce County and wanted the podcast to “sound like Tacoma,” reaching out to local musicians to provide scoring.
And while they hope the podcast reaches a broader audience, the podcast takes special care to resonate with the Tacoma community.
“I wanted to make sure that what we put out is authentic, and accurate, and told the truth about what it’s like to live here,” Aina said. “If anyone outside of Washington were listening, I would hope that they take away a really strong sense of place, and something that disrupts whatever preconceived notion they have about this corner of the country.”