Federal Review of Manuel Ellis’ Death in Tacoma Initiated by U.S. Attorney

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Review Launched by U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington in Manuel Ellis Case

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington has initiated a thorough review of the state prosecutors’ case against three Tacoma police officers for the death of Manuel Ellis. Ellis tragically passed away in their custody in 2020 after repeatedly pleading that he could not breathe.

Acquittal of Tacoma Officers in Pierce County Trial

In a recent development, Tacoma officers Matthew Collins, Christopher “Shane” Burbank, and Timothy Rankine were acquitted of manslaughter and murder charges after a 10-week trial in Pierce County. This marked only the sixth time in a century that police officers in Washington state faced criminal charges for an on-duty death.

Federal Review of Evidence

The federal review will carefully examine the evidence collected by the Washington Attorney General’s Office, which handled the prosecution. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has the authority to prosecute individuals, including law enforcement officers, for violating federal law or depriving citizens of their civil rights.

Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Determination

The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined that Ellis’ death was a homicide resulting from oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint during a violent struggle with the police. The tragic sequence of events began when Collins and Burbank stopped Ellis for questioning after witnessing him allegedly attempting to open a car door at an intersection. Within an hour, he lost his life.

Charges Against the Officers

In 2021, the state Attorney General’s office charged Collins and Burbank with murder and manslaughter for their aggressive tactics in subduing Ellis, while Rankine faced manslaughter charges for remaining on Ellis’ back despite his pleas of not being able to breathe.

The Defense’s Argument

During the trial, the officers’ defense attorneys highlighted Ellis’ high level of methamphetamine and enlarged heart as potential contributing factors to his death. They argued that the officers acted justifiably given Ellis’ resistance and exceptional strength. The unanimous verdict of the Pierce County jury supported the defense’s claims.

Confidence in Trial Result

Representatives for the officers expressed confidence in the trial’s outcome, expecting federal prosecutors to reach the same conclusion. They believe that the evidence presented during the trial will withstand further scrutiny.

Scope of the Federal Review

The U.S. Attorney’s limited statement regarding the review does not clarify whether it will solely focus on the actions of the three officers or examine broader aspects such as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s initial investigation or the court case. Further details were not provided.

Call for Federal Consent Decree

James Bible, an attorney representing Ellis’ family, along with support from the Puyallup Tribe and the NAACP of Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, urged the U.S. Attorney’s Office to pursue a federal consent decree for law enforcement in Tacoma and Pierce County, similar to the one in effect for the Seattle Police Department since 2012.

Impact and Legislative Changes

Ellis’ tragic death ignited widespread outrage and played a significant role in racial justice protests in the Pacific Northwest during 2020. It resulted in legislative changes, including a statewide ban on chokeholds, and policy reforms within the Tacoma Police Department, such as the prohibition of spit masks like the one Ellis was subjected to before his untimely demise.

Initiative 940 and Police Accountability

The prosecution of the officers served as the first test of Initiative 940, a measure approved by voters and the state Legislature to enhance police accountability.

Rare Federal Charges Against Police

Federal charges against law enforcement officers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are uncommon. One notable recent case involved the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington filing federal civil rights charges against a Spokane officer for the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm, after local prosecutors declined to pursue state charges. In 2012, the officer was convicted and sentenced to prison.

Parallel Federal and State Convictions

In a separate high-profile case, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the death of George Floyd. He was sentenced to over 20 years and had already been convicted on state murder and manslaughter charges.

City’s Decision on Employment Status

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards previously announced that the city would disclose its course of action regarding the employment of Collins, Burbank, and Rankine within 14 days after the trial. However, the deadline has passed without an announcement, and the city has rescheduled it for Tuesday.

Officers’ Employment Status and Compensation

All three officers have been on paid leave since mid-2020 and remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department. Payroll records obtained by The Seattle Times reveal that the officers have collectively received approximately $1.5 million in salary, accrued vacation time, and received multiple raises while on leave.

Settlement and Pending Lawsuit

The Ellis family reached a $4 million settlement with Pierce County due to mishandling of the initial investigation and notification of Ellis’ death to his family. However, their lawsuit against the city of Tacoma and six officers is still pending.

Read More of this Story at www.seattletimes.com – 2024-01-12 23:56:52

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