Two policemen were charged with murder and a third with manslaughter in the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shot with a stun gun, beaten and restrained by the neck during a 2020 confrontation.
Police officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were each charged on Thursday with second-degree murder in Ellis’s death on March 3, 2020 in Tacoma, Washington state. A third officer, Timothy Rankine, was charged with first-degree manslaughter.
All three Tacoma police officers pleaded not guilty in separate appearances before Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Schwartz on Friday, according to local news reports.
The charges were issued by Washington’s attorney general, who was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to oversee the case after the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney cited a conflict of interest.
The case marks the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.
“This year, I signed more than 12 bills creating the most comprehensive police accountability laws in the nation. It is my fervent hope that we can avoid future incidents and deaths,” Inslee said in a written statement.
Witnesses say Ellis, 33, known as “Manny” by his friends, was walking home from a 7-Eleven convenience store with water and a box of doughnuts when Burbank knocked him to the ground with the door of his squad car, then tackled and beat him.
“He’s a nice kid,” the shop clerk told prosecutors. “Really respectful kid. He always say[s] hi.”
According to the prosecution, on Ellis’s walk home from the 7-Eleven, at around 11:20pm (06:20 GMT), he was confronted by Burbank and Collins in a police car. Two witnesses testified that after a few minutes of “casual conversation”, Ellis began walking away from the police officers. But the officers “abruptly swung open the passenger door of the car, striking Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees”.
Video footage taken by witnesses shows Collins restraining Ellis by the neck as Burbank fires his stun gun into Ellis’ chest.
Rankine arrived on the scene shortly after and began applying pressure until he was “almost in like a seated position” atop Ellis’s back, the prosecution alleges.
All three officers held Ellis to the ground and handcuffed him as he called out “I can’t breathe!”, prosecutors said in their statement. He was declared dead at the scene, they said.
Pierce County’s medical examiner found that Ellis, who had methamphetamine in his system, died from a lack of oxygen due to his restraint by officers.
Ellis’s death set off protests in Tacoma by activists who said it marked the latest case of police brutality against Black men.
It also comes as the nation commemorates the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who suffocated under the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe” multiple times during the more than nine minutes he was under Chauvin’s knee.
Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. And a jury in Minneapolis last month found Chauvin guilty of murder.