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Defense accuses state of withholding information in trial of 3 Tacoma officers charged in Manuel Ellis' death

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday.

TACOMA, Wash. — Defense teams wrapped up their closing arguments and the state finish its rebuttal on Wednesday in the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged in the death of Manuel Ellis.

Attorneys will work Thursday to organize approved exhibits for the jury, then the jury will start its deliberations, tasked with deciding the outcome of a historic trial. 

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died in Tacoma police custody on the night of March 3, 2020, after an altercation with officers. Officer Matthew Collins and his partner Officer Christopher Burbank are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Officer Collins' attorney offers closing argument 

On Wednesday, Collins' attorney plainly listed for the jury reasons he believed they should doubt the state’s accusation that his client and fellow co-defendants are to blame for Manuel Ellis’s death.

Since the beginning of October, the jury has heard different, oftentimes contradictory accounts of what happened on the night Ellis died, and theories about what his cause of death was in the first place.

The first bullet point on Jared Ausserer’s list that he displayed in front of the jury was a phrase he repeated multiple times throughout his closing argument Wednesday: “How did we get here?”

A common theme throughout his presentation was that the state did not have the grounds to charge Collins in Ellis’ death – and they knew it before they brought their case to the jury. At different points, he accused the state’s expert witnesses of being “hired guns,” or of harboring their own political agendas.  

Ausserer began Wednesday by noting the state’s failure to call law enforcement officers from other agencies as witnesses in their case, against the prosecution’s objections. Before the court session began, Eakes explained to the judge that there was no “missing witness” instruction read to the jury, which happens when a witness who is “within the control of, or peculiarly available to” one party is not called to testify in a court case. In that situation, jurors are allowed to infer that that person’s testimony would have been unfavorable to that party’s case, which is what Ausserer implied. Eakes noted that Mark Conrad, attorney for Officer Rankine, planned to argue the same point.

Eakes argued that there was no basis for the defense to argue those witnesses would have been detrimental to the state’s case, and the defense had the opportunity to call those witnesses as well. The judge agreed with that point but said he would allow Ausserer and Conrad to imply that the testimony of the witness officers would have damaged the state’s case all the same.

Ausserer noted that officers from four other agencies aside from the Tacoma Police Department responded to 96th and Ainsworth on the night that Manuel Ellis died, and even participated in restraining Ellis.

“How in the world do four separate agencies observe conduct that is a gross deviation from what’s accepted and a disregard for a substantial risk of death?” Ausserer asked. “It wasn’t. That’s why they didn’t intervene.”

Ausserer went on to speak at length about Dr. Thomas Clark’s Assessment of Manuel Ellis’ cause of death in this case. Clark performed the autopsy on Ellis’ body and was the one to rule Ellis’ death a homicide. Ausserer highlighted sections of Clark’s report for the jury which identified meth intoxication and an enlarged heart as contributing factors, “without which the death would not have happened,” and another passage that acknowledged that an argument could be made that meth, not police restraints was the primary cause of Ellis’ death.

On the witness stand, Clark said he was more convinced now than at the time he performed Ellis’ autopsy that the constellation of restraint methods used against Ellis by police was the primary cause of his death. He said he was able to learn information in the months afterward that he did not have then, like the fact that Rankine had applied his weight to Ellis’ back and that Ellis was not speaking when paramedics arrived at the scene.

Ausserer argued in front of the jury that Clark did not have the LIFEPAK data from the night Ellis died, and went so far as to accuse the prosecution of withholding that information from him, which Ausserer alleged led Clark to an incorrect assumption about the type of heart attack Ellis suffered – a conclusion later echoed by three medical experts testifying for the state.

A medical expert called by the defense attributed Ellis’ heart attack to the impacts of methamphetamine, saying his atrium was beating so quickly that his heart could not fill up completely with blood, leading him to suffer from a lack of oxygen.

Ausserer rounded out with another side-by-side comparison of the state and the defense’s expert witnesses, cross-referencing the testimony of Jack Ryan, an expert on police policy and training, with Chris Nielsen, a police training sergeant at the Renton Police Department.

Ryan called the use of force by the officers “excessive,” and pointed out several moments where the officers should have decreased the level of force they were using as Ellis was not resisting. Neilsen said the officers were required to maintain a level of force that was one step higher than what they were receiving from Ellis, or else they would not have been able to take him into custody.

Ausserer said to the jury the state of charging Collins with committing intentional acts that caused Ellis’ death, reckless acts that caused Ellis’ death, and a lesser and included charge of negligent acts that caused Ellis’ death.

“Well, which is it?” Ausserer asked. “They don’t know what it is. They’re going to throw it all up here and let you folks figure it out, right? ‘Find one of these, because we don’t know which it is.’”

Officer Rankine's attorney offers closing argument

Attorney Mark Conrad, representing Officer Timothy Rankine, presented his closing arguments on Wednesday afternoon, continuing a pattern of accusing the prosecution of ignoring the facts of the case.

“It’s a dangerous thing when a prosecutor is not being forthright with the facts; turns a blind eye to facts that don’t fit their narrative,” Conrad said, quoting his co-counsel Anne Bremner’s opening statement.

He accused Eakes of omitting several pertinent facts about Rankine’s actions on the night Ellis died, calling her description “cynical.”

He recounted Rankine’s version of events driving up to the scene of the confrontation; noting neither he or his partner, Masyih Ford, knew what was happening, aside from the fact that two experienced officers they looked up to were in trouble.

Conrad noted Ford’s description of “holding on for dear life” when he was trying to restrain Ellis’ leg. He laid down a foundation for suggesting that Rankine’s actions were a proportionate and appropriate use of force for the situation.

He narrowed in on the impact the charges also have on Ford. 

“This is not just an accusation against our client, it’s an accusation against Officer Ford,” Conrad said, saying that it implied Ford watched Rankine commit manslaughter without intervening. Rankine, as the least-experienced officer on the scene that night, was one of 14 additional officers who arrived at the scene from four different agencies, Conrad argued. 

Conrad said the state interviewed each officer and did not call any of them to testify. “That is fourteen different reasons for you all to have reasonable doubt in this case,” Conrad said to the jury. 

Conrad also labored on the officers' training on positional asphyxia, which Ford testified was in relation to a group of people on top of someone for a prolonged period of time. After this testimony, the state then played an eyewitness video where the person recording says Ellis is underneath the "doggy pile" of officers; Conrad called this move by the state "manipulative."

He argued that Rankine has never been trained on, been in possession of nor assisted in either application of the hobble or the spit hood on Ellis the night of his death. Repeatedly during his testimony, Rankine said he could not remember who placed Ellis in hobbles and who put the spit hood on him. 

Conrad's closing argument also focused on showing the jury that Rankine showed "care" for Ellis by attempting to calm him down and taking his pulse. 

Revisiting past medical records which showed Ellis' complaints or treatments of chest and heart pain, exacerbated by meth use, Conrad said Ellis had a "sick heart" and that if the issue was a lack of oxygen, he would've been revived when medics gave him an oxygen bag upon arriving at the scene. It was the combination of a rapid heartbeat, Ellis' heart failure and the meth inhibiting Ellis' ability to pump blood that caused his death, Conrad argued. 

“If you look at the scenario as to what Officer Rankine did, you’ll find that at the time it appeared to him it was reasonable for him to use force," Conrad said, "and that the amount of force was reasonable to affect the purpose he had in that moment, which was to keep control of Mr. Ellis." 

State rebuttal, near dismissal

Special Prosecutor Patty Eakes refuted many of the defense's blows against the state in her rebuttal on Wednesday afternoon. 

She pointed out to the jury that eyewitnesses Sara McDowell and Seth Cowden were on scene as the confrontation between Ellis and the officers began, even if they didn't start recording until a few seconds later. 

It was reckless conduct by the officers, she said, to have heard Ellis say he couldn't breathe but to not tell anyone else on scene that he said it. She also asked the jury to consider if  the number of times Ellis said he couldn't breathe mattered more than the fact that he said it. 

"Shouldn't one time have been enough for Mr. Ellis to say that he couldn't breathe?" Eakes questioned. "Shouldn't he only have had to say it one time to merit some sort of a response from the officers and for them to respond with something other than ‘shut the f*** up, man’ or respond with ‘hey, if you’re talking, you can breathe just fine’?”

Eakes also said that Dr. Clark, the medical examiner who conducted Ellis' autopsy, knew of Ellis' underlying medical conditions and still determined he died from hypoxia due to physical restraint. She also said by the time Ellis was given oxygen by medics at the scene, he was too far gone and it wouldn't have brought him back. 

She discounted claims that an eyewitness had plans to lie on the witness stand, asking jurors to consider what the eyewitness has to gain from this case. On the topic of not calling more witnesses, Eakes said the state called 23 witnesses and that those witnesses proved their case with the testimonies given. 

All three defense teams took issue with Eakes final words of her closing argument, saying Ellis did not need to die "if only he had been granted the dignity of being human." 

Judge Bryan Chushcoff previously warned Eakes about obeying the court's rules, which forbids some language, and he accused Eakes of ignoring the rules. 

He said the officers did do something about Ellis saying he couldn't breathe, but that they had an obligation to control Ellis first and, based on the evidence, couldn't do so until he was restrained - not upon the first time he said it. 

“But if the same kind of approach was being done and this was an African-American defendant, I would dismiss this case for prosecutorial misconduct,” Chushcoff said. “That’s where you are.”

Judge Chushcoff said he is not dismissing the case because too much time and resources have been put into the trial and that "the community needs to hear from a jury, not a judge." 

Background on the case

On March 3, 2020, Ellis was walking home when he stopped to speak with Tacoma Police Officers Burbank and Collins, who were in their patrol car, according to probable cause documents.

Witnesses said Ellis turned to walk away, but the officers got out of their car and knocked Ellis to his knees. All witnesses told investigators they did not see Ellis strike the officers.

Other responding officers told investigators that Burbank and Collins reported Ellis was “goin’ after a car” in the intersection and punched the patrol car's windows.

Witness video shows officers repeatedly hitting Ellis. Collins put Ellis into a neck restraint, and Burbank tasered Ellis’ chest, according to prosecutors.

Home security camera footage captured Ellis saying, “Can’t breathe, sir. Can’t breathe."

Rankine, who was the first backup officer to arrive, applied pressure to Ellis' back and held him in place while Ellis was "hogtied" with a hobble, according to documents.

When the fire department arrived, Ellis was “unconscious and unresponsive,” according to documents.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide. According to the autopsy report, Ellis also had a fatal amount of methamphetamine in his system.

KING 5 will stream gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial from opening to closing statements. Follow live coverage and watch videos on demand on king5.com, KING 5+ and the KING 5 YouTube channel. 


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