TACOMA— Jurors in the trial of three Tacoma police officers accused of the in-custody death of Manuel Ellis heard a recording Thursday afternoon of an interview one officer gave investigators days after Ellis’ death.
Officer Timothy Rankine responded with his partner as backup the night of March 3, 2020, after hearing mic clicks and a location shout out from the first two officers who encountered Ellis at 96th Street and Ainsworth Avenue, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins. Prosecutors have accused Rankine of sitting on Ellis’ back even after the man told him he could not breathe.
Three days after Ellis’ death, Rankine told investigators at the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s Parkland-Spanaway precinct that when he arrived on the scene, Ellis was on his stomach with Burbank straddling his upper torso and Collins trying to secure both legs. As the interview went on, Rankine narrated where he put his knees on Ellis’ back in response to the man’s movements under him.
Burbank was “violently” bucked off Ellis, Rankine told investigators, and that’s when he said he put all of his weight in the middle of the man’s body, with Rankine’s right knee on Ellis spine just below his neck, and his left knee on his lower back, with his ankles kicked out so he was seated. The officer told investigators Ellis was making “strange animal grunting noises.”
Rankine said Ellis “wiggled like a worm” underneath him, moving him and the other three officers further into the street. The officer said he heard Ellis speak for the first time when his weight was evenly distributed on the man’s torso. Rankine related to investigators that Ellis said, “I can’t breathe”
“I remember telling the individual, ‘If you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine,’” Rankine said on the recording.
Rankine said what stuck out to him was that Ellis’ voice wasn’t distressed, it was calm. He said he told Ellis he would release some pressure on him if he relaxed, and after Ellis became quiet, Rankine started to reposition his right knee. Ellis “violently thrashed” again, the officer said, and he returned a knee to the middle of the man’s spine.
The recording was played after Sheriff’s Department Lt. Byron Brockway was called to the witness stand by prosecutors from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Brockway was the lead investigator when the Sheriff’s Department was tasked with looking into Ellis’ death, and he was present for Rankine’s interview.
The Sheriff’s Department’s initial investigation was completed in about three months. When it became public that a Sheriff’s Department detective sergeant, Gary Sanders, held Ellis’ foot to help restrain him, state officials criticized the department for not previously disclosing the conflict of interest, and the investigation was subsequently turned over to the Washington State Patrol.
Ellis, 33, died of hypoxia, a form of oxygen deprivation, the night of March 3, 2020, due to physical restraint, the Pierce County medical examiner found. His death was ruled a homicide. Four eyewitnesses have testified that police instigated the deadly interaction, and that Ellis 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.
Burbank, Collins and Rankine are charged with first-degree manslaughter in Ellis’ death. 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.”
Before jurors returned to the courtroom following an afternoon break, defense attorneys for the officers noted concerns that jurors could hear a relative of Ellis’ upset yells from outside the courtroom. Assistant attorney general Lori Nicolavo said the woman was understandably upset hearing Rankine’s statements regarding Ellis.
“We don’t want a mistrial here,” Casey Arbenz, an attorney for Collins, said.
Judge Bryan Chushcoff said the court wants Ellis’ relative to attend as much of the trial as she wants, but he said jurors couldn’t be exposed to that kind of thing. Nicolavo said prosecutors would talk with her and sit down with a victim advocate.
Later on in the recording of Rankine’s interview, the officer was asked if any kind of force was effective on Ellis. Rankine replied that nothing seemed to work, and he thought all the officers were just trying to pin him down, hoping he would tire out. He said the man seemed to calm down by the time Tacoma Fire Department personnel arrived.
Trial will continue Monday with prosecutors continuing their direct examination of Brockway.