Three Tacoma, Washington, police officers were acquitted on Thursday in the killing of an unarmed Black man whose dying pleas for air sparked protests in 2020, in a case bearing parallels to the murder of George Floyd in the same year.
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.
The officers punched 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, put him in a chokehold and shot him with a stun gun on March 3, 2020, according to witness testimony and video evidence presented at trial.
Video footage showed Collins restraining Ellis by the neck as Burbank fired a Taser into his chest as he lay on the ground.
Defense lawyers for the officers said the police stopped Ellis because he was approaching a car turning at an intersection, while a witness said she saw Ellis just standing at the intersection when police called him over to their car.
Lawyers for the officers argued that Ellis, who had methamphetamine in his system, died due to his drug use and a heart condition. They alleged Ellis kicked the police car door, and they cast his behavior as leading to “a situation where he created his own death,” as Wayne Fricke, the lawyer for Burbank, said in his closing statement.
The officers, he said, had no choice but to respond forcefully.
Prosecution witnesses testified that the officers were the aggressors and attacked Ellis unprovoked 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’s 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.