Jury hears testimony in trial of officers charged in Manuel Ellis' death

While being pinned down, Ellis told police he couldn't breathe.

October 5, 2023, 6:33 PM

A jury heard testimony in the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged in the 2020 death of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, who said he couldn't breathe during the fatal encounter.

Ellis, an unarmed Black man, was restrained by three police officers in Washington state on March 3, 2020, and a medical examiner ruled the cause of death as a homicide.

In a video of the incident that went viral, Ellis, a 33-year-old father, can be heard saying, "Can't breathe, sir, can't breathe," while being pinned down.

Washington Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu recalled those words to the jury Tuesday when he began his opening statement, describing what he referred to as Ellis' last known words. Liu said officers repeatedly hit Ellis and put him in a spit hood. He was also tased three times, according to a probable cause statement.

In 2021, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed felony charges against officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine. Burbank and Collins were charged with second-degree murder and Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three have pleaded not guilty and the defense claimed drugs found in Ellis' system may have contributed to his death instead.

A sign is displayed on May 27, 2021, at a memorial in Tacoma, Wash., where Manuel "Manny" Ellis died March 3, 2020.
Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE

On Wednesday, Grant Fredericks, a forensic video analyst, continued his testimony from Tuesday. He analyzed video from the incident and walked the jury through footage of the altercation. The prosecution in part focused on where Ellis had his hands when officers tased him for the first time.

Fredericks testified that less than two seconds after footage showed Ellis with his palms out, the taser was activated.

In his opening statement on Tuesday, Burbank's attorney Brett Purtzer said Ellis came to the passenger side of the police patrol car, which Burbank and Collins were in, and told Burbank while using an expletive that he ought to punch him in the face. Ellis also beat on the window, Purtzer claimed.

To distract Ellis from Collins who exited the vehicle, Burbank opened the passenger door, but the attempted distraction didn't work and Ellis threw Collins "to the ground with superhuman strength," Purtzer alleged.

Liu told the jury that eyewitnesses would tell them that someone from the patrol car got Ellis' attention and he walked to the vehicle's passenger side. Those witnesses saw a brief conversation take place, Ellis walking away and the passenger door swinging open, knocking Ellis to the ground, Liu said. Witnesses also saw officers jump out of the car and start attacking Ellis.

They "will tell you … Mr. Ellis was not aggressive, was not violent, never attacked the officers," Liu told the jury. "In fact, it was the officers that [were] attacking Mr. Ellis."

Anne Bremner, the attorney for Rankine, who arrived later at the scene and applied pressure to Ellis' back, according to a probable cause statement, told ABC News in a statement Thursday morning that her client "responded to an emergent situation to assist other officers. He followed his training helping to bring Mr. Ellis into custody. The evidence will show his acts were undertaken in conformity with proper protocols, with care and attention to Mr. Ellis' condition."

"Mr. Ellis, however, had significant medical and physiological issues, including an extreme concentration of methamphetamine in his blood," she continued. "The conditions, combined with his lengthy physical struggle with the officers, led to his demise. Officer Rankine welcomes the opportunity to provide the jurors with the truth surrounding the incident."

The county medical examiner ruled Ellis' death as a homicide due to "hypoxia due to physical restraint." Although blood collected from Ellis showed the presence of methamphetamine, the medical examiner said his death was not likely caused by methamphetamine intoxication, according to the probable cause statement.

The Tacoma police union said in 2021 that these charges appear to be a "politically motivated witch hunt."

The Tacoma police union told ABC News in a statement Thursday that while they did not want to appear as though they were trying to "influence the court in anyway during trial," they still maintained their stance.

"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.

When ABC News asked Purtzer for a comment on the trial from him or Burbank, Purtzer said they didn't have anything to say. ABC News also reached out to Collins' attorney.

ABC News' Morgan Windsor and Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.