Tacoma police officers officially on trial in death of Manny Ellis

TACOMA, Wash. — Three Tacoma police officers are officially on trial for the alleged murder of an unarmed 33-year-old Black man.

Manuel Ellis, ‘Manny’ to family and friends, died in March of 2020 after he was stopped while walking home.

Cell phone video shows just how violent his death was. Tacoma police officers tazed, tackled, and repeatedly punched the 33-year-old man, at one point squeezing his neck so hard, that he protested.

“I can’t breathe, sir,” Ellis was recorded saying, twice.

Still, it would take one very long year of protests and a rare investigation by Attorney General Bob Ferguson for the officers to be charged in Ellis’s death.

Late Monday afternoon the Ellis family released a statement that reads in part, “Our hope is today, September 18, 2023, will help mark a turning point in the history of our country in favor of truth and justice.”

It then goes on to say, “Government officials have long been complicit in ensuring a climate of zero accountability for police misconduct. This cannot stand.”

Security has been tightened for this case. In fact, journalists are not allowed on the third floor where the trial is being held unless they have a special white badge. And there are just five badges for journalists.

There wasn’t visible evidence of heightened security and no need for it, at least not yet. But make no mistake, what is beginning here in this courthouse is already historic.

The officers accused of brutally beating Manny to death have pleaded not guilty. They stood in the Pierce County Superior courtroom where their fate will be decided in the next few months. 

Tacoma Police officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, both white, were both charged with 2nd-degree murder and 1st-degree manslaughter. Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, was charged with 1st degree manslaughter.

A crucial issue is what actually killed Manny Ellis - the brutal beating and the spit hood placed over his head or his damaged heart and the methamphetamine that the Pierce County Medical Examiner says Ellis had in his system.

It prompted this exchange between Judge Bryan Chushcoff and a lawyer representing the state.

“You don’t think it has anything to do with his death, of course?” asked Judge Chushcoff. “So they’re right about that part?”

“I don’t know that I would say it had nothing to do with his death,” replied Henry Phillips, a lawyer for the prosecution. “Some of our experts opined that it increased the need for oxygen which he was then deprived of because of the actions of the defendants.”

We were told all 150 potential jurors filled out the extensive questionnaire they received on Monday. Sixty-five of them will be in the courtroom tomorrow. Anyone with a major hardship will be immediately excused.

Then, the hard work to impanel this jury will begin.

It could take two weeks.

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