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Tacoma police officers are acquitted in the killing of unarmed Black man Manuel Ellis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A jury acquitted three police officers of all charges today in the death of Manuel Ellis, an unarmed Black man who was killed in Tacoma, Wash., in 2020. Though he died months before George Floyd, Ellis' case gained new attention in the wake of Floyd's murder. The trial was the first test of a state law making it easier to charge officers for using deadly force. Jared Brown of KNKX reports.

JARED BROWN, BYLINE: Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher “Shane” Burbank were found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine was acquitted of manslaughter. Ellis had been walking home from a convenience store late at night in March of 2020, when Officers Collins and Burbank called him over to their patrol car.

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PATTY EAKES: There seemed to be some sort of conversation, perhaps, a brief interaction.

BROWN: Special prosecutor Patty Eakes with the state attorney general's office argued in court that Burbank then knocked Ellis to the ground without cause. Video recorded by passing motorist show he and Collins then punched Ellis, put him in a neck hold and tasered him. Witnesses say he didn't fight back. Officer Timothy Rankine later kneeled on Ellis' back while his hands and feet were bound.

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EAKES: He's not threatening the officers. He's not incoherent. The words he uses are all words that anyone can understand. Please, I can't breathe. I still can't breathe. Sir, please, I can't breathe.

BROWN: Attorneys for the officers said that Ellis attacked them and resisted arrest with extreme strength, a symptom, they said, of what some call excited delirium. That's a medical syndrome that some police trainers say can cause a person to be difficult to control and can lead to death, but which has been widely rejected by medical associations. Defense attorney Wayne Fricke argued Ellis died of a methamphetamine overdose exacerbated by a heart condition unknown to the officers.

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WAYNE FRICKE: All they know is they were being attacked by a guy out in the streets in a dangerous part of town, and they're acting accordingly.

BROWN: The county medical examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide due to a lack of oxygen from police restraint with methamphetamine and heart disease listed as contributing factors. It took a year after Ellis' death for the officers to be charged. Police accountability advocates in Washington say the racial justice protests of 2020 were instrumental in getting state officials to reexamine the case and bring charges. And according to legal experts in Washington, it was nearly impossible to charge police officers before 2019, when state law required prosecutors to prove officers acted with malice or evil intent. Craig Sims is a former Washington prosecutor. He said the Tacoma officers' acquittal shouldn't impact future charging decisions.

CRAIG SIMS: The field has been somewhat leveled in terms of the path to pursuing accountability for police officers who may have crossed the line.

BROWN: After the verdict, Washington's attorney general, Bob Ferguson, issued a short statement thanking the jury for their service and saying his heart went out to the Ellis family. In a statement inside the courthouse, the officers' attorneys said the acquittal proved that their clients had been falsely charged. For NPR News, I'm Jared Brown in Tacoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jared Brown