(TACOMA, Wash.) — A jury has found three officers not guilty in the 2020 death of Manuel “Manny” Ellis while in police custody in Tacoma, Washington.
Christopher Burbank, 38, and Matthew Collins, 40, were each found not guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, while Timothy Rankine, 34, was found not guilty of first-degree manslaughter.
All three officers faced a maximum of life in prison if they had been convicted, according to the Washington Legislature.
“I want to start by thanking the jury and court staff for their service. I also want to thank the members of my legal team for their extraordinary hard work and dedication. I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them,” Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement after the verdict.
The jury began deliberating on Dec. 14, but the jury was asked to restart twice, as alternate jurors needed to be called in. On Monday, a juror’s status was changed “from seated to alternate because of their unavailability due to a family concern,” the superior court said, and an alternate juror joined the 11 other seated members to restart deliberations. Then on Tuesday, a juror tested positive for COVID-19, the court said, and an alternate juror was called.
Ellis, an unarmed, 33-year-old Black man, died on March 3, 2020, after he was restrained, beaten, tased and put in a spit mask by law enforcement, according to prosecutors. In a video of the encounter, Ellis can be heard pleading with the officers, saying, “Can’t breathe, sir, can’t breathe.”
Special prosecutor Patricia Eakes of Washington’s Attorney General’s Office had relied on eyewitness testimony and video evidence to present the state’s closing arguments. Eakes said Ellis didn’t have to die that night.
“He was a human who deserved the same dignity that we all do,” she said. “He deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.”
Eakes compared Ellis’ treatment to that of an animal, and the description him being hogtied with a hobble in her closing arguments caused tension during the court proceedings. A hobble is a restraining device used by police to secure the legs and ankles of a suspect.
Defense attorneys motioned for a dismissal, a mistrial, and objected to her references to Ellis as a human being several times.
The defense attorneys had maintained that while the death of Ellis was unfortunate, it wasn’t unlawful. Throughout the trial, they presented evidence of Ellis’ history of drug addiction and mental health issues as their main defense.
The county medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to “hypoxia due to physical restraint,” and later found the presence of methamphetamine in Ellis’ blood. The examiner said his death was not likely caused by drug intoxication, according to the probable cause statement.
Jared Ausserer, an attorney for Collins, who was first on the scene with Burbank, said during his closing argument there was no doubt that Ellis was a good son, uncle and brother, but added, “When he was sober.”
“We know when he was high on meth, he was a different person,” Ausserer said.
Wayne Fricke, Burbank’s attorney, justified the defendant’s use of force and blamed Ellis for his own death. He said Ellis “created his own death,” and the use of methamphetamine “caused him to be violent, unpredictable and paranoid.”
Rankine, who arrived with a second unit at the scene of the incident, was an officer for 14 months at the time of the incident, according to his attorney Mark Conrad’s closing statement. Conrad said he did not have hobble training and followed the superior officer’s orders that night.
“Officer Rankine responded to an emergent situation to assist other officers,” Anne Bremner, one of Rankine’s attorneys, said in a statement to ABC News. “We will ask the jury to not compound the tragedy of Mr. Ellis’ death with an unsupported and unjust verdict against Officer Rankine.”
The Tacoma police union told ABC News in a previous statement that they maintain their stance on this case, that the charges appear to be a “politically motivated witch hunt.”
“We certainly maintain our support for these officers and have not changed our beliefs on why they are charged,” Henry Betts, Tacoma Police Union Local #6 president, said.
ABC News had previously reached out to Ausserer and Fricke for statements but did not receive a response.
ABC News’ Tesfaye Negussie, Brittany Gaddy, Morgan Winsor and Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.
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