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Trial of three Tacoma officers charged in Manuel Ellis' death nearly derails at final witness

A question posed by Prosecutor Patty Eakes had all three defense teams asking for a dismissal of the case.

TACOMA, Wash. — On Wednesday, it appeared for a moment that the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged in Manuel Ellis’ death could end in a mistrial due to a question posed to Officer Timothy Rankine by Prosecuting Attorney Patty Eakes.

Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter in Ellis' death. Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died in Tacoma police custody after a confrontation with officers. Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in Ellis' death. 

During cross-examination, Eakes noted to Rankine that he gave his statement to Pierce County sheriff’s detectives about the night Ellis died three days after the confrontation. Eakes asked Rankine if he had time to “consider and counsel” before his interview.

Rankine responded by saying he wasn’t sure what Eakes meant by “counsel.”

Eakes noted that Rankine was not alone during his interview.

Noting whether a defendant exercised their right to counsel can be prejudicial. Rankine’s attorney, Mark Conrad, objected to the question, and outside the presence of the jury indicated he would ask the judge to declare a mistrial.

Eakes walked back her question, saying she meant to ask Rankine if he had time “to counsel himself” before his meeting with detectives. The judge indicated he did not believe that explanation and assumed the jury had already been clued into the fact that Rankine had a lawyer present during that interview.

Judge Bryan Chushcoff asked the attorneys for the other two officers if they also wanted a mistrial.

Defense for Matthew Collins, Jared Ausserer, joined Conrad in his objections to Eakes’ question but went a step further in asking the judge to dismiss the charges against his client altogether; he alleged that Eakes attempted to cause a mistrial on purpose.

Burbank’s representation joined Ausserer in asking for a dismissal, but the judge indicated he would not do that. Burbank’s and Collins’ attorneys then indicated that they did not want a mistrial but suggested that the prosecution was attempting to force a mistrial so the Washington Attorney General’s Office could have a do-over. The judge disagreed that that was Eakes’ intent.

“I’ve done this kind of stuff for a long time and when we’re nearly three months into a trial I appreciate that emotions get high and tempers get short and patience gets short and we all get a little bit testy here,” Chushcoff said, trying to assuage the tension in the courtroom.  

After a brief recess, Conrad asked the judge to declare a mistrial, but Chushcoff declined, noting that while the question from Eakes was inappropriate he did not believe it impeded Rankine’s right to a fair trial, adding that there would be a significant burden on the defendants’ financial and liberty interests should a mistrial be declared.

Closing arguments set to begin Monday

After Rankine’s cross-examination was completed, Burbank's representation notified the judge that he did not intend to testify, and the other defense attorneys noted they did not plan to call any more witnesses. 

On Wednesday afternoon, defense rested its cases for all three officers and the prosecution did not call any rebuttal witnesses. The jury was excused until Monday when closing arguments are expected to begin.  

After closing arguments and the presentation of jury instructions, jury members will begin deliberations. There is no timeline for how long jury deliberations may last.

State and prosecution attorneys discussed possible exhibit redactions on Wednesday afternoon. Some redactions included items such as certain records of Ellis’ medical history and medical records of care and substance use.

Other redactions included details about Ellis' father dying from a heart condition at age 32, which the defense argued it showed Ellis had a family history of heart conditions. The judge ruled to redact this and have it not shown to jurors. 

The state argued for an exhibit that shows Ellis applied to Bates Technical College in 2017, stating it showed he had hopes and plans for his future; the judge ruled against this and said it won't be shown to jurors as it was too far in the past and was not relevant to the case. 

However, several times throughout the redaction process, Judge Chushcoff expressed sympathy for Ellis and the hardships in his life. 

"This might have more significance to me if this was in September of 2019, but it's February of 2017," he said. "And as far as I know, none of these things happened for him. In a way, it actually shows that all the times he was trying to do something different ... that none of those things ever worked out. It makes me feel all the more worse for the guy." 

The judge also ruled in favor of redacting some mental health evaluations for Ellis, which the defense argued connected his psychosis to his drug usage, and about some exhibits showing Ellis' prior interactions with law enforcement. A statement in one exhibit about Ellis’ past record of suicidal ideation was redacted by the state’s request.

Jury instructions, which are not on the record, continue Thursday and Friday as Judge Chushcoff makes final decisions about which guidelines will be provided to jury members when deliberating the case.

Taking a granular look at the timeline 

Before the court session was derailed by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, Rankine’s attorney Mark Conrad and Prosecutor Patty Eakes both delved further into the question of how long Rankine had his weight applied to Manuel Ellis’ back, and how long Ellis was in the recovery position.

Estimates floated in court suggest that Rankine was on Ellis back from anywhere between four to six minutes. A medical expert testifying for the state suggested that just over four minutes would have been enough to cause Ellis’ death.

On the witness stand, Rankine maintained that Ellis was in the recovery position for the majority of the time when he was on scene, which was determined to be about eight minutes. He also walked back a statement he gave to detectives, saying he had put “all of his weight” on Ellis’ back, saying some of his weight was also on the ground.

Eakes then explored why Rankine did not try and move Ellis into a position that would make it easier for him to breathe, by either adjusting how the hobbles were attached to the handcuffs or by re-cuffing Ellis in front of his body and attaching the hobbles that way. On re-direct examination, Rankine said that was not a reasonable alternative.

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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