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Podcast explores police killing of Manuel Ellis, as officers go on trial

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Washington state, a trial has just gotten underway that was years in the making. Back in 2021, Washington's attorney general charged three Tacoma police officers with murder and manslaughter in the 2020 killing of an unarmed Black man named Manuel Ellis. It was the first time the office had charged police officers with unlawful use of deadly force. Jury selection in that case began this week, and KNKX public radio reporter Mayowa Aina has been following the case for the past two years. She, Kari Plog and Will James co-host the KNKX and Seattle Times podcast all about it called The Walk Home. And she joins us now. Hi, Mayowa.

MAYOWA AINA, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So let's just start with this. Who was Manny Ellis?

AINA: Manny Ellis was a 33-year-old Black man from Tacoma, Wash. And just for reference, Tacoma is a major city about 35 miles south of Seattle. And Ellis was a father and a musician. He was a drummer at a local church. He had been attending regularly. And he was known to have struggled with drug use and mental health at times. But his family said he appeared to be doing better when he encountered two Tacoma police officers on the night of March 3.

DETROW: And you have done so much reporting on what happened that night. Tell us what we need to know about that.

AINA: Right. So the basics are that Ellis was walking back from a 7-Eleven that night with some snacks when officers stopped him. Officers say he was messing with a car in the intersection. And when they stopped him, they say he attacked them, and they engaged in a violent struggle. Ellis died in police custody that night. But months later, his name became part of rallying cries during the racial justice protests of 2020. And now, three years later, the officers are on trial for his death.

DETROW: And who are these officers?

AINA: So the officers charged in the case are Christopher "Shane" Burbank and Matthew Collins - those were the first two that Ellis encountered that night - and Timothy Rankine, who arrived later as backup.

DETROW: And a big part of the story is how long it took for charges to be filed. It took more than a year from this incident taking place. Tell us why it took so long. What was going on?

AINA: Right. So there's a few reasons for that. First, few people outside of the Ellis family and the initial investigating agency took notice that Ellis had died while in police custody, so his death didn't receive very much attention for months. And then George Floyd died, and that brought a lot of awareness to police custody deaths, including around here. Just days after Floyd's death, we learned the medical examiner here ruled Ellis' death a homicide caused by a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint, and that contradicted the initial police narrative that Ellis may have died from so-called excited delirium. And that really turned Ellis' name into a rallying cry and just started this domino effect.

DETROW: So what happened next, once this got a little bit of publicity?

AINA: After that, multiple eyewitness videos of the encounter came out, and then a potential conflict of interest led the governor to step in and ask the attorney general to review the case. So that's how it ended up in the attorney general's office. And ultimately, they filed criminal charges. The office released a 21-page charging document detailing down to the second everything they say officers did that night that support criminal charges. And we took an in-depth look at the charging decision on our podcast.

DETROW: All right. Let's listen to some of that reporting. This is from the podcast The Walk Home. And a note to listeners - this is a minute-by-minute account of what happened that night, and it includes graphic descriptions of violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK HOME")

AINA: 11:11 p.m.

KARI PLOG, BYLINE: Manny buys some raspberry-filled powdered donuts and a bottle of water from 7-Eleven, where he's a regular. He tells the clerks good night and walks out the door.

AINA: 11:16.

PLOG: Officers Burbank and Collins are doing a quick traffic stop down the road about a mile or so.

AINA: 11:20.

PLOG: Manny, walking on the sidewalk, and the officers, driving in their patrol car, are heading toward 96th and Ainsworth. This is when the officers say they saw Manny in the street messing with a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW COLLINS: And he was at the passenger door working the handle...

PLOG: But they couldn't give a detailed description of that car to sheriff's investigators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER "SHANE" BURBANK: I don't remember at all. I just remember he went directly to the front passenger door.

PLOG: Prosecutors don't seem to buy that story. They say none of the witnesses even saw Manny in the intersection. Charges say audio and video evidence backs that up.

AINA: 11:21 p.m.

PLOG: Manny walks up to the officers who are stopped at the traffic light. They talk casually, like they know each other.

AINA: About 10 or 15 seconds later.

PLOG: As Manny turns to walk away, Officer Burbank strikes him with the passenger door, knocking him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURBANK: I used my door to actually door check him.

PLOG: Two witnesses pull out their cellphones and start recording - Sara McDowell and Sam Cowden. Sara is the woman who stopped her car to record the video, the one that later became national news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARA MCDOWELL: Stop. Oh, my God. Stop hitting him.

PLOG: Sam is a pizza delivery driver. He stops his car on Ainsworth Avenue, with a clear view of Manny and the officers. They're struggling on the ground straight ahead, the headlights from the police cruiser shining on them.

AINA: Forty-six seconds after Burbank door checks Manny.

PLOG: Burbank lifts up Manny and slams him into the pavement, striking him with his fist. Collins is on top of Manny, punching him in the head. Manny screams after each punch.

AINA: Ten seconds later.

PLOG: The pizza delivery driver's video shows Collins putting Manny in a chokehold as Burbank aims a taser at him. Manny isn't fighting back. He puts his hands up like he's surrendering. The officers respond with force. Collins pulls back on his neck, rolling him into the pavement. Burbank fires taser probes into Manny's chest. As Manny goes limp, Collins releases the chokehold and presses down on Manny's head or neck.

AINA: Fourteen seconds past 11:22 p.m.

PLOG: Burbank radios their location.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURBANK: Ninety-sixth and Ainsworth.

PLOG: Rankine and Ford are already on their way. Rankine has a bad feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMOTHY RANKINE: I was thinking the worst, that Officer Burbank and Officer Collins most likely were either dead or shot.

AINA: Twelve seconds later.

PLOG: Burbank tases Manny again. The officers keep applying pressure on him.

AINA: Twenty-five seconds past 11:23 p.m., two minutes into the struggle.

PLOG: Manny cries out. It's picked up on the doorbell camera 112 feet away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANNY ELLIS: I can't breathe, sir. I can't breathe.

AINA: Fifteen seconds later.

PLOG: Manny pleads with them again. This time, one of the officers responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIS: Please, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Inaudible).

PLOG: It sounds like one of them says, shut the [expletive] up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Inaudible).

AINA: Thirty-one seconds past 11:24 p.m.

PLOG: Officers Ford and Rankine arrive. Burbank is on Manny's back. Collins is holding his legs. Then Rankine applies all of his weight to Manny's body. Manny tells them he can't breathe again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANKINE: It was the first time I actually heard this subject even speak, and the first thing he said to me was, I can't breathe. I can't breathe. But he said it in a very - not in a distressed voice, in almost a very calm, normal voice. I remember telling the individual - I was like, if you're talking to me, you can breathe just fine.

PLOG: Manny says he can't breathe at least four times in the first minute Rankine is there.

AINA: Just after 11:25 p.m.

PLOG: Officers hogtie Manny, tying his hands and feet together behind his back. A Tacoma police sergeant at the scene clicks on his radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIS: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Calling help.

ELLIS: I can't breathe.

PLOG: Prosecutors say those were Manny's last known words. By then, Manny had said he couldn't breathe at least seven times.

DETROW: That was an excerpt of the KNKX and Seattle Times podcast The Walk Home, co-hosted by reporter Mayowa Aina, who's with me now. And, Mayowa, I think a lot of listeners are probably with me in really dwelling on those words, I can't breathe. You know, we've heard them over and over again in so many deaths at the hands of police officers. I'm thinking about Eric Garner and George Floyd, as well as this case. I'm just wondering, how have these officers responded to these charges?

AINA: Right. So currently all three officers remain on paid leave, and they've all pleaded not guilty. They do not dispute that they engaged in the physical struggle. One of the officers even described it to investigators as a melee. But since we've reported that episode, we've spoken to some of their lawyers, and one of them told us he viewed the case as a drug tragedy, so essentially an overdose.

DETROW: Is that a possibility?

AINA: The medical examiner did find a significant amount of meth in Ellis' system that night, and, as I mentioned, he was known to have used drugs in the past. But the medical examiner listed meth as a contributing factor, not the primary cause. So that's going to be a major point of contention in the trial. But ultimately, the officers say, you know, they followed their training that night. They needed to respond with that level of force in order to restrain Ellis, to protect himself, to protect themselves and to protect the public. And they say that he died that night from an overdose, not from their restraints.

DETROW: Manny Ellis died in 2020. These charges came in 2021. It's now a couple years later. Why has it taken so long to get to this point today?

AINA: Yeah. So as we talked about, Manny Ellis died before George Floyd. And the officers involved in the Floyd case have been charged, prosecuted and sentenced before this trial even started. Even the Tyre Nichols case that we've heard a little bit about in other media reporting, that feels like it's moving a little bit faster than the Ellis case. Nichols died in January, and those officers have been fired and charged already. But this case was slow from the start. Aside from everything that it took to get to the charges, there have also been a series of delays related to logistical and legal issues that have just continued to push it back until now. This is also just a really complicated case. We hear more about it these days. We've talked about a couple of different cases already, but it's still very rare for officers anywhere to be charged criminally for use of force. It just doesn't happen that often, so it is a big decision. And some of the complexity here comes from the density of the case.

DETROW: And the law and the evidence can be detailed and complicated and at times confusing when it comes to cases like this. There's a lot of different evidence to go through. How have the legal teams been preparing for this trial?

AINA: Yeah. It's been a massive effort. The legal teams have submitted over 100,000 pages of documents, and the potential witness list is in the hundreds. So preparing for this case and understanding all of that just takes a lot of time. We also know that county court officials took a trip to Minneapolis, where the Derek Chauvin trial took place, to learn from how they did things there. So it's just been a lot of preparation happening at all levels around this case that have pushed it to this point.

DETROW: We mentioned before that jury selection is ongoing. Take us through what happens next in this trial, how long we expect this all to take.

AINA: Yeah. So we're expecting at least another week of jury selection. They've amassed a pretty big jury pool because this case has gotten so much attention. And so once jury selection is over, oral arguments will begin. And we're expecting that around October 2 is when it's scheduled for. And we think the whole trial will last somewhere between 6 to 10 weeks, but, you know, even after the verdict comes in, the case doesn't really end there. These officers still technically have their jobs. So their employment is still an outstanding question. And we're waiting to see how the verdict will impact that, how the verdict will impact the department and the community and especially the Ellis family.

DETROW: That's KNKX reporter Mayowa Aina talking about the murder and manslaughter trial of three police officers in Tacoma, Wash., where jury selection is ongoing. KNKX, in partnership with Seattle Times, produced The Walk Home podcast, which won a Murrow Award in 2023. You can listen to The Walk Home wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Mayowa Aina