Jury hears Manuel Ellis’ last words at trial of Washington officers accused in the Black man’s death

Defendant Matthew Collins looks on while the state gives opening statements during the trial of Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine in the killing of Manny Ellis, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, at Pierce County Superior Court, Tacoma, Wash. (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)

Defendant Matthew Collins looks on while the state gives opening statements during the trial of Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine in the killing of Manny Ellis, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, at Pierce County Superior Court, Tacoma, Wash. (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Jurors heard the last words of Manny Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man who was punched, shocked with a Taser, put in a chokehold and held face down, during opening statements Tuesday in the trial of three Washington police officers accused in his death.

“I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe,” Washington Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu told jurors, describing Ellis’ last words on March 3, 2020.

“When the first paramedics arrived on the scene, they found Mr. Ellis unresponsive,” Liu said. “His eyes were fixed in place, his pupils were dilatated. Mr. Ellis stopped breathing, his body starved of oxygen. He died on the street. He died right there, right on the street.”

Ellis did not die from an overdose, Liu told the jury. He died of oxygen starvation caused by the officers.

“Four witnesses will tell you Mr. Ellis never fought back,” Liu said. “We are here today because this should not have happened. Mr. Ellis did nothing wrong.”

Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, both white, are charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, is charged with manslaughter. All three have pleaded not guilty.

It’s the first trial under a 5-year-old Washington state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police who wrongfully use deadly force. A jury of eight men and four women was seated Monday afternoon.

Ellis was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven that night when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light. Collins and Burbank sat inside.

Attorney Brett Purtzer, representing Burbank, said during his opening statement that the officers tried to question Ellis about attempting to get into a stranger’s car.

When Ellis approached the patrol car, he was “fixated” on Burbank, Purtzer said. Ellis told Burbank, “I’m going to punch you in the (expletive) face,” and started beating on the window, Purtzer said.

The officers got out of the car and tried to take Ellis into custody, but he threw one officer to the ground with “super-human strength,” Purtzer said.

Burbank used his Taser, but it had little effect, Purtzer said. Collins tried to hold Ellis in what Purtzer called a lateral neck restraint, “but that didn’t work.” The officers tried to get control of his arms and Burbank called for help on his radio. Other officers arrived.

Ellis was “screaming, violent and extremely high on methamphetamine,” Purtzer said. “They were exhausted after the fight. He’s still fighting, he’s still resisting so they need to put the hobbles on him. The officers are saying, ‘Don’t fight. Stop resisting,’ but Mr. Ellis is still fighting.”

Witnesses have said they did not see Ellis try to open the door of another vehicle, strike the window of the police cruiser or swung his fists at the officers.

It was the drugs coupled with his bad heart that caused Ellis’ death, Purtzer said, a defense echoed by attorney Anne Bremner who was representing Rankine.

“The evidence is undisputed that he had a large heart and compromised lungs,” Bremner told the jury. “It comes from their own medical examiner. That level of meth would have killed anybody in this room.”

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide and said it was caused by a lack of oxygen during the physical restraint.

Rankine arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed and face down. He knelt on Ellis’ upper back as the man pleaded for breath.

Bremner said Rankine did what he was trained to do. He used just enough force to restrain Ellis. He was trying to hold him down to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else, she said.

“Officer Rankine did his job,” she said. “He did it with care. He didn’t do anything wrong or criminal.”

She said Ellis was “in a state of what is called excited delirium. People can actually die of that alone.”

The term is controversial. California lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit “excited delirium” as a medical diagnosis or cause of death in police custody.

Bremner concluded opening statements.

Prosecutors called a video expert as their first witness. Video evidence will be key in the case against the officers.

Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said earlier Tuesday that the video and witness statements will prove the officers committed a crime.

“From the beginning of this case, it was clear to me that the officers’ defense strategy would be to try and assassinate my brother’s character,” she told the Associated Press in an email. “Let’s be clear, Manny is not on trial. The focus of this case needs to be on the three Tacoma police officers and the extreme police brutality that occurred on March 3, 2020, not defaming my brother’s character when he can’t defend himself.”

The trial in Pierce County Superior Court, which will run four days a week, is expected to last until early December.

AP U.S. News

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