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Three Tacoma police officers charged in death of Manuel Ellis who said he couldn’t breathe

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(TACOMA, Wash.) — Three police officers have been arrested and charged in the death of an unarmed Black man who said he couldn’t breathe while being restrained in Washington state last year.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed felony charges in Pierce County Superior Court on Thursday against three officers with the Tacoma Police Department. Two of the officers, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, who are both white, were charged with second-degree murder while the third, Timothy Rankine, who is Asian, was charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three were in custody by Thursday evening and were scheduled to be arraigned Friday morning. ABC News has reached out to their attorneys for comment.

It’s the first time that the Washington State Attorney General’s office has criminally charged police officers with unlawful use of deadly force.

The Tacoma Police Union defended the three officers, saying, “facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt.”

“We look forward to trial,” the union said in a statement Thursday. “An unbiased jury will find that the officers broke no laws and, in fact, acted in accordance with the law, their training, and Tacoma Police Department policies. An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”

The charges stem from the in-custody death of Manuel “Manny” Ellis on March 3, 2020, less than three months before the killing of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man whose pleas for breath under a white Minneapolis police officer’s knee triggered nationwide calls for racial justice and police reform. Prosecutors said Ellis, a 33-year-old father of two, spent the evening at his church playing drums with the worship band, just hours before he was killed. He then went home, called his mother and ate dinner before going out to get a late-night snack from the nearby 7-Eleven — a box of donuts and some water, according to a probable cause statement. But he never made it back home.

While walking home, Ellis came across Burbank and Collins, who were sitting in their police vehicle, prosecutors said. Both Burbank and Collins claimed that they were stopped at a red light when Ellis suddenly punched the passenger side window of their car and began attacking them when they got out to confront him, according to the probable cause statement. But prosecutors said that account is contradicted by statements from three civilian witnesses, which they say are corroborated by video evidence.

Prosecutors said witnesses described the initial encounter between Ellis and the two officers as peaceful and respectful. But as Ellis began to walk away, witnesses said Burbank abruptly swung open the car door, hitting Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees, according to prosecutors, and that Burbank then got on top of Ellis as he tried to stand up. What happened next was captured on cellphone videos, a doorbell camera and dispatch radio traffic, according to the probable cause statement.

Prosecutors said Burbank wrapped his arms around Ellis, lifted him into the air and drove him back down onto the pavement while striking him with one of his fists. Collins then moved in toward Ellis and brought his weight down onto him. With Ellis underneath him, Collins hit his head with his fist several times, according to the probable cause statement. Prosecutors said one bystander, who was filming the encounter on her cellphone, cried out: “Hey! Stop! Oh my god, stop hitting him! Stop hitting him! Just arrest him!”

Collins then wrapped his arm around the front of Ellis’ neck and locked his hands together while squeezing, applying a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” according to the probable cause statement. Prosecutors said video evidence shows Ellis was not fighting back and never attempted to strike the officers, and one witness said he didn’t even appear to be defending himself. Burbank deployed his Taser on Ellis, who had put his arms up in a “surrender-type position,” as Collins continued to squeeze his neck, according to the probable cause statement.

After the Taser probes jolted Ellis with electricity for five seconds, prosecutors said Collins let go of Ellis’ neck and his head fell limply toward the ground and that Collins then pushed his arm onto the back of Ellis’ head or neck, pressing his face into the pavement. The officers called for backup as they held Ellis’ arms behind his back and pressed down on his body. Ellis screamed and writhed, prosecutors said. Burbank then jolted Ellis again with the Taser. Ellis screamed out again, his body and legs writhing as the officers continued to hold him down, according to the probable cause statement.

Prosecutors said a doorbell camera on a house across the street captured Ellis telling the officers that he could not breathe. He is heard saying, clearly: “Can’t breathe, sir. Can’t breathe!” Less than 15 seconds later, prosecutors said, Ellis can be heard again pleading with the officers, saying either “Breathe, sir?” or “Please, sir?” One of the officers then tells him to “shut the f–k up, man,” according to the probable cause statement.

Rankine was among the officers who responded as backup. Prosecutors said he ran over and started pressing on Ellis’ back, getting on top of him “almost in like a seated position.” Ellis, who was in handcuffs by that point, can be heard telling the officers again, “I can’t breathe,” and pleading with them: “Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe, sir,” according to the probable cause statement. Prosecutors said Rankine later recalled hearing Ellis “making really strange animal grunting noises” and saying in a “very calm and normal voice” that he could not breathe. Rankine said he responded that “if you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine,” according to the probable cause statement.

As Rankine continued to apply pressure to Ellis’ back, prosecutors said other officers tied Ellis’ arms and legs together and put a spit hood on his head. The brand of spit hood that was used on Ellis includes instructions that specifically state that it should not be used on anything “having difficulty breathing,” according to the probable cause statement.

Prosecutors said Ellis remained tied on his stomach with his face covered by the spit hood for six to nine minutes until paramedics from the local fire department arrived on the scene. Ellis’ last known words were the same plea he had repeated throughout the incident: “Can’t breathe,” according to the probable cause statement.

The paramedics recorded Ellis’ condition as “unconscious and unresponsive,” prosecutors said. They asked Rankine to remove the restraints so they could administer an IV and attempt to resuscitate Ellis, but Rankine resisted, according to prosecutors, telling them he did not “wanna get him outta cuffs in case he starts fighting again.” Rankine eventually relented and helped remove the restraints. But paramedics were unable to revive Ellis, who was declared dead at the scene, according to the probable cause statement.

The Pierce County medical examiner later ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to “hypoxia,” or a lack of oxygen, caused by physical restraint. Although blood collected from Ellis showed the presence of methamphetamine, the medical examiner said his death was not likely caused by methamphetamine intoxication, according to the probable cause statement.

All three officers could face up to life in prison if convicted, but the standard sentencing range is 10 to 18 years for second-degree murder with no prior criminal history and 6.5 to 8.5 years for manslaughter with no prior criminal history.

Interim Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake said the police department will now start its own internal review of the case to make a determination regarding any disciplinary actions, training or policy changes that might be warranted.

“Conversations and actions regarding police reform are as important as ever,” Ake said in a statement Thursday. “We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community.”

Meanwhile, Ellis’ loved ones welcomed the charges but said the criminal justice system “needs to be made over.” The family has filed a $30 million lawsuit against the city of Tacoma.

“This is about Manuel Elijah Ellis. This is his work,” Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter-Patterson, said at a press conference Thursday. “So help us with it.”

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