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3 Tacoma police officers found not guilty on all charges in 2020 death of Black man in police custody

By Veronica Miracle, Eric Levenson and Emma Tucker, CNN

(CNN) — A jury found Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine not guilty on all charges Thursday in the 2020 death of Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a Black man who died in custody after saying he couldn’t breathe.

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

The officers were accused of unlawfully using deadly force on Ellis, 33, when attempting to arrest him in March 2020 for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” Part of the arrest was caught on video by a witness who testified during the trial. Ellis could also be heard crying, “I can’t breathe,” on police dispatch audio.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged the officers in May 2021, marking 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 against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018 – a measure making it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings.

Moments after the verdict was announced, the officers and their families were seen hugging each other in the courtroom, some in tears. The officers had faced up to life in prison, according to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Ellis’ death led to protests in Tacoma and came just months before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing widespread demonstrations against racism and police violence.

Matthew Ericksen, an attorney for the Ellis family, gave a statement to CNN after the verdict, saying, in part: “Manny Ellis was unarmed and walking home from a 7-Eleven with some donuts and a bottle of water when TPD officers stopped him. He was minding his own business and not a threat to anyone. Manny didn’t have to be arrested that night, and he certainly didn’t have to die.”

“Make no mistake about it, the Ellis family is emotionally devastated but we will continue to seek some measure of justice for them in the form of our federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Tacoma and 6 TPD officers who we believe we should be held responsible for Manny’s death,” the statement said.

The officers tried to arrest Ellis on March 3, 2020, leading to a physical altercation in which they tackled him and restrained him on the ground, according to police.

Parts of the arrest were caught on video by a driver, a nearby doorbell camera as well as police dispatch audio. Ellis repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” according to the prosecution’s statement of probable cause.

The cause of his death was respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of oxygen.

According to court documents, Burbank and Collins “tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint) on Ellis, and shot him with a taser three times, all without justification.” They also failed to render aid or call for medical help and put him in “hogtie restraints,” according to the documents.

Rankine was accused of holding Ellis in the prone position and applying pressure to his back despite hearing the man say he could not breathe, court documents said.

Defense attorneys had argued Ellis died not from the restraint but from a lethal amount of methamphetamine in his system and his preexisting heart conditions.

In June 2020, two videos posted on social media by a local activist group showed Tacoma officers striking a Black man and pinning him down before he died in their custody. James Bible, attorney for the Ellis family, said at the time the man was Ellis.

Both videos of the alleged altercation are under a minute. One appeared to show officers striking the man as he laid on the ground. A second video appeared to show them holding the man to the ground and telling him to put his hands behind his back. It was unclear whether the video recordings were taken before or after Ellis was heard shouting “I can’t breathe” in the dispatcher audio.

After the videos surfaced, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards had demanded the four police officers be fired and prosecuted.

In March 2022, Pierce County, Washington, reached a $4 million settlement agreement with Ellis’ family. The lawsuit named as defendants the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, six Tacoma officers – including Burbank, Collins and Rankine – and two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies. The settlement meant the claims against the county and the two deputies were dropped.

In a statement, the City of Tacoma acknowledged Thursday’s not-guilty verdicts “may exacerbate the pain caused by the death of Mr. Ellis.”

The Tacoma Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into the three officers’ conduct, which includes their testimony during their trial, the city statement said. The department will complete its investigation within 24 hours, and within 10 days, the chief will make a decision on whether to discipline the three officers “up to and including termination,” it said.

Following Burbank’s acquittal, his attorney, Wayne Fricke, said: “We understand, obviously the Ellis family is suffering and grieving, they’re going to continue to suffer and grieve, and we’re not ignoring that… But I do believe this was the correct verdict.”

“He’s, like all of them, you can imagine, they’re ecstatic,” Fricke said of his client.

CNN’s Jeffrey Kopp, Ray Sanchez and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.

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