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Three Washington state police officers acquitted in killing of Black man

THREE Tacoma, Washington, policemen were acquitted of homicide charges in the 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis, a Black man whose dying pleas for breath during a struggle with officers bore grim parallels to the murder of George Floyd weeks later.

Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were found not guilty of murder and manslaughter charges, while a third officer, Timothy Rankine, was found not guilty of manslaughter following a trial that lasted more than two months.

Ellis’ family members and their supporters expressed anger at the outcome of the first such case brought against law enforcement officers under a new police accountability statute that Washington state voters approved by referendum five years ago.

The three men were cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Ellis, 33, despite witness testimony and video evidence presented at trial showing the officers putting Ellis in a chokehold, shooting him with a stun gun and pinning him to the street with their weight on March 3, 2020.

Video footage showed Collins restraining Ellis by the neck as Burbank fired a Taser into his chest while he lay on the ground. Ellis, who was unarmed, could be heard repeatedly saying: “Can’t breathe, sir,” during the encounter and was declared dead at the scene.

Defence lawyers for the officers said the police stopped Ellis because they saw him approaching a passing car in an intersection, while a witness said she saw Ellis just standing at the corner when police called him over to their car.

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Lawyers for the officers argued that Ellis, who had methamphetamine in his system, died from his drug use and a heart condition. They alleged Ellis kicked the police car door, and they cast his behaviour as leading to “a situation where he created his own death,” as Wayne Fricke, the lawyer for Burbank, put it in his summation.

The officers, he said, had no choice but to respond forcefully.

CORONER RULED DEATH A HOMICIDE

Prosecution witnesses testified that the officers were the aggressors in an unprovoked effort to subdue Ellis that began while he was standing on the sidewalk and that they did not see Ellis fighting back. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation.

Ellis’ killing occurred weeks before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police set off months of protests around the world over racial injustice and police brutality. Bystander video of Ellis’s death was released in June 2020, a week after Floyd was killed, leading to protests in Tacoma.

Burbank, Collins and Rankine all remained free on bond and on paid administrative leave during the trial.

Addressing a news conference after the verdict, city officials said the Tacoma Police Department was nearing the end of its internal investigation that could result in the discipline of the three officers, including possible dismissal.

“I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to prosecute the case, said in a posting on the social media platform X.

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The majority-white jury of seven men and five women deliberated for three days before reaching their verdict.

Reaction in the Tacoma courtroom was muted as Judge Bryan Chushcoff read the decision. A livestream showed members of the Ellis family abruptly leaving the courtroom even as the judge polled the jurors individually to confirm the verdict.

The defendants and supporters were seen hugging and shaking hands with their lawyers as the proceeding ended.

When Collins’ lawyer asked the judge if they were free to leave, Chushcoff said: “I would just be careful. A lot of emotions are running high right now,” the Seattle Times reported.

A group of a few dozen people gathered on a Tacoma street corner a short time afterwards, blocking traffic, chanting Ellis’ name and the slogan, “No justice, no peace,” and exhorting bystanders to join the protest.

Leslie Cushman, founder of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, questioned the fairness of the trial.

“Mr Ellis’ criminal history, medical history, personal history was in front of everyone to see, and we never heard of the misconduct of police or their training issues,” she told the Seattle Times.

Lawyers for Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer convicted of murdering Floyd by kneeling on his neck, unsuccessfully mounted a similar defence at trial, arguing Chauvin’s use of force was reasonable and that Floyd’s enlarged heart and drug use likely contributed to his death.

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Chauvin is serving a 21-year sentence in federal prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights, as well as a concurrent 22 1/2-year state sentence for his murder conviction.

By JOSEPH AX and STEVE GORMAN

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