Family sues over police death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma

The family of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died while being restrained by Tacoma police officers who have since been charged criminally, has filed a federal lawsuit over his death.

Attorneys for Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, and mother, Marcia Carter, filed the civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma late Friday against the city of Tacoma, Pierce County and several individual officers.

Neither the city nor the county immediately responded to emails seeking comment.

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died March 3, 2020, just weeks before George Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing. Police stopped him while he was walking home from a convenience store with a box of doughnuts and a bottle of water, the complaint noted.

“He was deemed suspicious by the officers and they beat, tased, choked, and hogtied him as a result of their false perceptions of Manuel Ellis that are irretrievably linked to his race,” the lawsuit said.

Ellis repeatedly told the officers he couldn’t breathe as he was restrained. Three officers who were charged in May have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

“We will not let Manny be forgotten,” attorney Matthew A. Ericksen Sr. said in an email announcing the lawsuit. “We are 100% committed to holding people accountable for his killing and doing our best to effect change in Tacoma and the nation.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, who are white, with second-degree murder after witnesses reported that they attacked Ellis without provocation.

Officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian, faces a charge of first-degree manslaughter. He is accused of kneeling on Ellis’ back and shoulder as Ellis repeatedly told them he couldn’t breathe, according to a probable cause statement filed in Pierce County Superior Court.

The Pierce County medical examiner called Ellis’ death a homicide because of a lack of oxygen caused by restraint, with an enlarged heart and methamphetamine intoxication as contributing factors.

The death made Ellis’ name synonymous with pleas for justice at protests in the Pacific Northwest. His final words — “I can’t breathe, sir!” — were captured by a home security camera, as was the retort from one of the officers: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”

Ellis, who loved playing drums in his church band and had reportedly been doing well in the months before his death, had a history of mental illness and addiction. In September 2019, he was found naked after trying to rob a fast-food restaurant. A sheriff’s deputy subdued him with a Taser after he refused to remain down on the ground and charged toward law enforcement.

His family’s lawsuit said it was seeking “immense” damages, but it did not include a specific amount. The family previously suggested it was seeking $30 million.

The officers charged in his death could face up to life in prison if convicted. But the standard sentencing range is 10 to 18 years for second-degree murder with no prior criminal history and 6.5 to 8.5 years for manslaughter.

The officers have been released on bond pending their trials.

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