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March 1, 2024

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Cardiologist testifies police restraint of Manuel Ellis led to his death in their custody

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TACOMA —A cardiologist called by prosecutors in the trial of three Tacoma police officers accused of killing Manuel Ellis testified Wednesday morning that the way police restrained Ellis caused him to asphyxiate, go into cardiac arrest and die.

Dr. Daniel Wohlgelernter, section chief of cardiology at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, told jurors it was his opinion that asphyxia was the result of Ellis being held down on his stomach while restrained in handcuffs and a hobble with the weight of officers on top of him. He said that meant Ellis’ chest didn’t have room to expand, so his organs could not get enough oxygen.

“He’s having difficulty breathing then agonal breathing which is a weak, ineffective, slow kind of breathing, which is occurring right at the doorstep of death,” Wohlgelernter testified.

Cardiology is the area of medicine related to the treatment of the heart and major blood vessels. Wohlgelernter’s opinion mirrored the original autopsy findings of former Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark, who ruled Ellis’ death a homicide in June 2020 and said the cause was hypoxia, a form of oxygen deprivation. It also supported the opinion of forensic pathologist Dr. Roger Mitchell, who testified last week that Ellis’ death was the result of his “violent subdual and restraint” by law enforcement.

Four eyewitnesses have testified that police instigated the deadly interaction while Ellis was walking home the night of March 3, 2020, and that Ellis, who went by Manny, did not fight back as he was repeatedly struck, shocked with a Taser and pressed to the ground. Expert testimony has shown that the man told police he couldn’t breathe multiple times while officers continued to apply force.

Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine are charged with first-degree manslaughter for killing Ellis. Collins and Burbank also face charges of second-degree murder. The defendants have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and remain on paid leave from the Tacoma Police Department.

Lawyers for the officers have argued that police had to subdue Ellis because he was aggressive and resisted arrest, and they have pointed to the man’s underlying health conditions and methamphetamine intoxication as another explanation for his death. Collins and Burbank told detectives they saw Ellis try the door of a car passing through an intersection, and when they called him over to their patrol car, he began punching their windows. Collins reported that when he got out, Ellis fought him with “superhuman strength.”

Wohlgelernter, who graduated from the Yale University School of Medicine and received his medical doctorate in 1977, said he has more than 35 years of clinical experience. He said to make a conclusion on Ellis’ cause of death, he reviewed Ellis’ medical records, autopsy reports, the reports of paramedics, the statements of the officers and electrocardiogram data from the heart monitor used on Ellis.

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Under direct examination from special assistant attorney general Patty Eakes, the cardiologist pointed out for jurors on a television monitor how the electrocardiogram data shows that the electrical activity of Ellis’ heart slowed, which he said was consistent with hypoxia. Shortly before 11:41 p.m., his heart appeared to nearly flatline, and CPR was started.

Wohlgelernter said Ellis’ heart still had some electrical activity, but he had no pulse.

“The muscle is no longer functioning,” Wohlgelernter said.

Before court broke for lunch, Eakes asked the expert witness if there was a minimum amount of time someone would need to be restrained for hypoxia to occur. Wohlgelernter said there isn’t because many variables are at play. He said someone like Ellis, who had been in a physical struggle, had methamphetamine in his system and had an enlarged heart would need more air.

“Someone with a heightened oxygen requirement can succumb to oxygen deprivation far more quickly than someone who is resting,” he said.

The specific rhythm of Manuel Ellis’ heart was a telltale sign that the cardiac arrest he experienced after he was restrained by police was not the result of methamphetamine overdose or heart disease, the cardiologist testified Wednesday afternoon.

When paramedics from the Tacoma Fire Department arrived at Ellis’ side the night of March 3, 2020, and hooked him up to a heart monitor showing the organ’s electrical activity, Wohlgelernter said, the first heart rhythms it recorded were not what he’d expect to see in someone about to go into cardiac arrest due to meth or heart disease.

Wohlgelernter said if meth was the primary cause of death, Ellis’ heart would have had a type of abnormal rhythm called ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, which are associated with the heart beating too fast.

“Methamphetamine is not the culprit,” Wohlgelertner testified.

Answering questions from Eakes, Wohlgelernter also flatly denied that excited delirium caused Ellis to go into cardiac arrest and die. A medic from the Tacoma Fire Department pointed to that term Tuesday as the cause for Ellis’ death.

Wohlgelernter called excited delirium “pseudo science” and said it was not a diagnosis accepted by major medical organizations, including the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, or the World Health Organization.

The cardiologist also answered questions about Ellis’ dilated heart, telling jurors that the man’s heart disease was a mild case of dilated cardiomyopathy. He said a normal male heart weighs 400 to 500 grams, and Ellis’ heart was 480 grams. In a severe case of a dilated heart, Wohlgelernter said, the heart could weigh 700 to 800 grams.

Under cross examination, lawyers for the officers focused Wohlgelernter’s attention on the findings of Ellis’ original autopsy report, the actions of the defendant officers, and his compensation from the Attorney General’s Office for testifying as an expert witness.

Wohlgelernter agreed with Brett Purtzer, an attorney for Burbank, that Ellis’ autopsy report listed methamphetamine as a contributing factor in his death, but he said it was his own opinion that the meth Ellis ingested made him more vulnerable to the effects of restraint asphyxia because he would have needed more oxygen.

The cardiologist conceded that he didn’t know how many officers were involved in apprehending Ellis or how long Burbank, Collins or Rankine were on his back. Purtzer asked what specifically Burbank did to cause Ellis to suffer from hypoxia aside from the physical struggle. Wohlgelernter said Burbank restrained him. Purtzer shot back that the officer restrained Ellis because he was resisting arrest.

As Purtzer continued to question the expert, the attorney said Ellis never stopped fighting officers as they tried to restrain him. Wohlgelernter said the man was trying to get room to breathe.

“That’s struggling to live, that’s not fighting,” Wohlgelernter said.

Answering questions from Jared Ausserer, an attorney for Collins, Wohlgelernter said he was paid $550 per hour to consult in this case, $9,600 for a full day of testimony, and the maximum compensation he expected to receive from the Attorney General’s Office was $50,000.

Late in the afternoon, Mark Conrad, one of Rankine’s attorneys, pressed Wohlgelernter on his history testifying as an expert witness. The cardiologist said he’s been doing that kind of work since 1983, and the majority of cases have been related to medical malpractice, but he’s also testified in civil in-custody death cases.

Conrad brought up several in-custody death cases where Wohlgelernter used electrocardiogram data to rule out causes of death that weren’t hypoxia. The cardiologist said he has to analyze facts in a consistent way, and the pulseless electrical activity that Ellis and others who have died in restraints experienced before death was a manifestation of hypoxia.

Defense attorneys’ cross examination of Wohlgelernter will continue Thursday morning.

Earlier in the morning Wednesday, attorneys for the officers completed their cross examination of Steven Mell, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department forensic investigator who went to the scene the night of Ellis’ death to take scans and photographs.

Mell’s testimony supported officers’ claims that Ellis hit their patrol car. He and jurors were shown photographs of the vehicle showing white streaks on the passenger’s side window where Burbank was seated. Mell said there was no question in his mind that the white substance was powdered sugar from a box of raspberry-filled doughnuts found on the ground by the passenger’s side door.

Ellis purchased a jug of water and those doughnuts when he went to a 7-Eleven the night of his death, according to testimony, and he was on his way home when he encountered the officers. Mell did not offer an opinion as to how the powdered sugar got on the window, but attorneys for the officers have returned to the white powder as evidence that Ellis pounded on the patrol car with his fists, leading the officers to get out to restrain and subdue him.

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