TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Jurors heard the last words of Manny Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man who was punched, shocked with a Taser, put in a chokehold and held face down, during opening statements Tuesday in the trial of three Washington police officers accused in his death.
“I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe,” Washington Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu told jurors, describing Ellis’ last words on March 3, 2020.
“When the first paramedics arrived on the scene, they found Mr. Ellis unresponsive,” Liu said. “His eyes were fixed in place, his pupils were dilatated. Mr. Ellis stopped breathing, his body starved of oxygen. He died on the street. He died right there, right on the street.”
Ellis did not die from an overdose, as the defense will say, Liu told the jury. He died of oxygen starvation caused by the officers.
“Four witnesses will tell you Mr. Ellis never fought back,” Liu said. “We are here today because this should not have happened. Mr. Ellis did nothing wrong.”
Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, both white, are charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, is charged with manslaughter.
It’s the first trial under a 5-year-old Washington state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police who wrongfully use deadly force. A jury of eight men and four women was seated Monday afternoon.
All three officers have pleaded not guilty.
Attorney Brett Purtzer, representing Burbank, told the jury during his opening statement that the officers engaged with Ellis after they tried to question him about attempting to get into a stranger’s car.
When Ellis approached the patrol car, he was “fixated” on Burbank, Purtzer said. Ellis told Burbank, “I’m going to punch you in the (expletive) face,” and started beating on the window, Purtzer said.
The officers got out of the car and tried to take Ellis into custody, but he threw one officer to the ground with “super-human strength — something these officers have never seen before,” Purtzer said.
Burbank used his Taser, but it had little effect, Purtzer said. Collins tried to hold Ellis in what Purtzer called a lateral neck restraint, “but that didn’t work.” The officers tried to get control of his arms and Burbank called for help on his radio. Other officers arrived.
Ellis was “screaming, violent and extremely high on methamphetamine,” Purtzer said. “They were exhausted after the fight. He’s still fighting, he’s still resisting so they need to put the hobbles on him. The officers are saying, ‘Don’t fight. Stop resisting,’ but Mr. Ellis is still fighting.”
It was the drugs coupled with his bad heart that caused Ellis’ death, not the officers, he said.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide and said it was caused by a lack of oxygen during the physical restraint.
Video evidence will be key in the case against the officers.
Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said earlier Tuesday that the video and witness statements will prove that the officers committed a crime.
“From the beginning of this case, it was clear to me that the officers’ defense strategy would be to try and assassinate my brother’s character,” she told the Associated Press in an email. “Let’s be clear, Manny is not on trial. The focus of this case needs to be on the three Tacoma police officers and the extreme police brutality that occurred on March 3, 2020, not defaming my brother’s character when he can’t defend himself.”
Ellis, 33, was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven that night when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light. Collins and Burbank sat inside.
After what witnesses said appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers, Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door, knocking Ellis down. The officers tackled and punched Ellis. One stunned him with a Taser while the other held him in a neck restraint.
Rankine arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed, face-down. He knelt on Ellis’ upper back as the man pleaded for breath.
Police said Ellis had tried to open the door of another vehicle at the intersection, struck the window of their cruiser and swung his fists at them, but witnesses said they observed no such things.
The three civilian witnesses — a woman in one car, a man in another, and a pizza delivery driver in a third car — all said they never saw Ellis attempt to strike the officers, according to a probable cause statement filed by the Washington attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case.
Video, including cellphone footage shot by the witnesses and surveillance video from a doorbell camera nearby, variously showed Ellis raising his hands in an apparent gesture of surrender and addressing the officers as “sir” while telling them he can’t breathe. One officer is heard responding, “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”
The trial in Pierce County Superior Court, which will run four days a week, is expected to last until early December.