One of the three Tacoma officers accused of killing 33-year-old Manuel Ellis took the stand for the first time on Monday. Officer Matthew Collins faced hours of questioning as both the prosecution and defense examined every moment of the violent encounter.
It’s a day more than three years in the making. Ellis died in police custody on March 3, 2020.
Collins is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. His partner, Officer Christopher Burbank, faces the same charges. Responding backup officer, Timothy Rankine, is charged with just manslaughter.
“I had no idea that this would be looked at as our wrongdoing. I thought it was tragic but clear cut,” Collins said at one point while facing cross-examine questions from the prosecution.
The day of testimony started with Collins facing questions from his defense attorney. Collins said Ellis was the aggressor when he and Burbank first encountered him in the street, behaving erratically.
Collins said he called Ellis over to the patrol car to ask him questions, and things quickly escalated.
“For police officers, it’s the worst thing that can happen,” Collins said. “It was one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had.”
During questioning from the defense attorney, Collins described Ellis approaching the patrol car and starting to punch the window on Burbank’s side.
Collins said that’s when he exited the car.
“He comes right at me and grabs me by my vest and picks me up and throws me backwards in the intersection,” Collins said.
No witnesses at the scene have supported that part of Collins’ testimony – the defense said it’s what occurred before passerby started recording.
Collins said that based on his decades of training, including in the military, he decided the best option was to put Ellis in what’s called a lateral vascular neck restraint, or LNVR, to render Ellis unconscious.
A demonstration of what the LNVR maneuver looks like was shown in court.
Collins said he never successfully got in the right position to use fully the neck restraint because his partner, Burbank, started using a taser on Ellis.
Rankine was a backup officer who arrived shortly after.
In the violent struggle, prosecutors play a recording where Ellis appears to be repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”
Collins is heard responding, “Shut the f--- up.”
Prosecutors asked Collins about that during the cross-examination.
“So it’s your testimony that you stepped away so quickly, that you never heard Mr. Ellis on those other occasions, say that he couldn’t breathe,” said special prosecutor Patty Eakes.
“I never heard him say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ no,” Collins said.
Prosecutors also questioned Collins about having a knee on Ellis’ neck, which Collins denied.
Ellis ended up being cuffed and tied in the prone position. By the time paramedics arrived, Ellis was dead.
Other accused officers may testify on Tuesday, though the defense did not confirm by the end of court on Monday who will take the stand next.
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