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Jury Finds Tacoma Police Officers Not Guilty of 2020 Death of Black Man in Police Custody

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Police tailing a car
Source: RuinRaider/Flickr

A jury found Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine not guilty on all charges.

This verdict was delivered last week Thursday in the 2020 death of Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a Black man who died in custody after stating he couldn’t breathe.

After a monthslong trial, Burbank and Collins were acquitted of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Rankine was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter. All three had pleaded not guilty.

The officers faced accusations of unlawfully using deadly force on Ellis, 33, during his arrest in March 2020. The arrest stemmed from allegations of him “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” 

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A witness captured part of the arrest on video, which was presented during the trial. Ellis’ plea of “I can’t breathe” was also heard on police dispatch audio. In May 2021, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged the officers.

This marked the first time the state’s attorney general criminally charged officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.

It was the second time homicide charges were filed in the state since the adoption of Initiative 940 in November 2018. Initiative 940 aimed to make it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings.

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Moments after the verdict, the officers and their families hugged in the courtroom, some in tears. The officers had faced potential life sentences, per the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Ellis’ death sparked protests in Tacoma and occurred months before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. This event contributed to widespread demonstrations against racism and police violence.

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Matthew Ericksen, the Ellis family’s attorney, provided a statement to CNN after the verdict. In part, he stated, “Manny Ellis was unarmed, walking home from a 7-Eleven with donuts and water when TPD officers stopped him. He wasn’t a threat and didn’t need to be arrested or die.”

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The statement expressed the Ellis family’s emotional devastation but affirmed their pursuit of justice through a federal civil rights lawsuit.

They target the City of Tacoma and six TPD officers. The officers attempted to arrest Ellis on March 3, 2020. This led to a physical altercation where they tackled and restrained him on the ground, according to police.

The cause of Ellis’ death was respiratory arrest due to hypoxia, resulting from physical restraint, per the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hypoxia is oxygen deprivation.

Court documents state that Burbank and Collins “tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint), and tasered him without justification.”

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They also neglected to provide aid, call for medical help, and placed him in “hogtie restraints,” according to the documents.

Defense attorneys contended that Ellis died from a lethal amount of methamphetamine in his system and preexisting heart conditions, not from the restraint. In March 2022, Pierce County, Washington, settled for $4 million with Ellis’ family, concluding the lawsuit.

The settlement ended claims against the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, six Tacoma officers (including Burbank, Collins, and Rankine), and two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies. This resolution resulted in the dismissal of claims against the county and the two deputies.

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