by Jared Brown
(This article was originally published on KNKX and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
On Tuesday morning in a modest courtroom in Tacoma, attorneys, defendants, and media gathered for opening statements in the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged with killing Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, on March 3, 2020.
About four dozen people, including relatives of Ellis and the officers, listened from the courtroom gallery. After trial delays and two weeks of jury selection, the trial is a major milestone in Ellis’ case and police accountability in Washington State.
The charged officers, Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, and Timothy Rankine, have all pleaded not guilty.
Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu’s opening statement detailed many of the prosecution’s graphic allegations from court papers while honing in on inconsistencies in the officers’ version of events and attempting to humanize Ellis.
One of the contradictions Liu repeatedly noted was officers describing Ellis making “animalistic noises and growling” despite audio recordings of Ellis saying he couldn’t breathe.
Ellis was “a human being that loved his family. He was flawed. He struggled with addiction,” Liu said. “He was not an animal, and he deserved the respect and the care that was not given to him when he died that night at the intersection of 96th and Ainsworth.”
Ellis was walking home late at night when he encountered police. In the hours before officers allegedly attacked, tasered, and hogtied Ellis, Liu said Ellis played the drums at church before calling multiple friends and his mother, then going on a snack run to 7-Eleven.
“We are here today because this should not have happened,” Liu said. “Mr. Ellis did nothing wrong.”
Opening statements from defense attorneys focused on the threat Ellis allegedly presented to officers and their claims that he died of a drug overdose.
“He was aggressive, he was violent, and he was extremely high on methamphetamine,” said Brett Purtzer, an attorney for officer Christopher Burbank.
“This was a meth overdose compounded by a bad heart that was enlarged, compromised lungs,” Anne Bremner, an attorney for officer Timothy Rankine, told the jury.
The attorneys also distanced their clients from the decision made by a fourth officer, who has not been charged, to use a spit hood. Then-Pierce County medical examiner Thomas Clark said the spit hood was a key factor in Ellis’ death. Clark also said Ellis could have died of an overdose, despite his ruling that he suffocated.
Bremner said Rankine, who arrived as backup, was trying to overcome Ellis’ “superhuman strength” to get him into restraints.
“He was never up on his neck. He was never in a place where he could restrict the breathing of Manuel Ellis,” Bremner said.
Judge Bryan Chushcoff sustained multiple objections against Bremner by the state after she attempted to claim the prosecution of the officers was politically motivated.
“This is a case that shouldn’t have been brought,” Bremner said before concluding her opening remarks.
Bremner also sought to distinguish Ellis’ death from the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. She said Liu’s repetition of both men’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” was meant to appeal to the jury’s emotions.
Ellis died three months before Floyd, but Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide as videos of Floyd’s killing spurred nationwide racial justice protests.
Attorneys for officer Matthew Collins waived their opening statement until after the prosecution rests. Prosecutors have said they expect to put on their case in about four weeks.Follow the latest updates on the trial at the KNKX website.
Jared Brown is a Tacoma-based reporter for KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts, and power with a focus on accountability and solutions. He is currently a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. You can email him at JBrown@KNKX.org.
📸 Featured Image: In his opening statement, State Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu demonstrates how Manny Ellis raised his hands after encountering Tacoma police. Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine are on trial, charged in the killing of Manny Ellis. (Photo by Brian Hayes, courtesy of KNKX.)
Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!