Defense attorneys representing three Washington police officers on trial for killing a black man accused the victim of “creating his own death.”
Tacoma officers Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38, face murder and second-degree manslaughter charges in connection with the death of Manuel Ellis on March 3, 2020. A third officer, Timothy Rankine, 34, is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the case.
Throughout the nine-week trial, jurors heard from prosecutors that officers knocked Ellis to the ground, punched and choked him and shot him with a Taser as he walked home from a 7-Eleven. Before he was killed, Ellis whispered to officers, “I can't breathe, sir.”
Closing arguments began Monday, with the state arguing that Ellis would be alive today if the officers had done what most people would do if someone was struggling to breathe. Special prosecutor Patty Eakes said Tuesday that the officers “chose to treat [Ellis] like an animal, in the most dehumanizing position you can imagine.”
Attorneys for the defendants have since made controversial characterizations of the circumstances surrounding Ellis' death, directly accusing him of being “paranoid” and ultimately “[causing] his own death.”
“This is a situation where he created his own death,” defense attorney Wayne Fricke argued during closing arguments Wednesday, according to CBS News. “It was his behavior that caused the officers to use force against him because he created a situation that required them to act.”
Ellis' cause and manner of death was ruled a homicide caused by lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Ellis was lying on his stomach, his legs and arms bound and his body pressed against the concrete, while the officers rested their weight on him. The News Tribune References.
However, the defense has focused on the levels of methamphetamine present in Ellis' body at the time of his death and an enlarged heart noted in the autopsy report.
The defense said Ellis was the aggressor and attacked the officers with “superhuman strength” and eventually died of a drug overdose and a damaged heart. Witness statements and video presented at trial suggest otherwise.
Three witnesses said they saw the officers sitting in their patrol car as Ellis approached and walked to the passenger side. When Ellis turned to leave, Burbank opened the door and knocked Ellis to the ground, witnesses said.
Prosecutors also played video recorded by witnesses for the jury.
Burbank and Collins gave their official statements before they knew there was audio and video of the meeting, Ms. Eakes said. They claimed that Ellis attacked them violently and mercilessly and did not say a coherent word.
“But you know that's not true,” Ms Eakes told the jury. “He did speak after he was pinned to the ground. He said he couldn't breathe, sir, nice and pretty.'
When Mr Rankin appeared and pinned Ellis to the ground, despite being handcuffed, Ellis said he could not breathe three more times.
Mr. Rankin responded by saying, “If you talk to me, you can breathe just fine.” After that, they put steps on Ellis' ankles and connected them with his handcuffs.
The second-degree murder charges filed against Burbank and Collins, also called “felony murder,” means a felony was committed and someone died. In this case, the prosecution argues that the police officers committed the crime of unlawful imprisonment or assault.
Ms Eakes told jurors they did not have to agree unanimously on which crime was committed to find the two officers guilty, only that Ellis died in the commission of a crime. They also have the option of murder, which is the charge Mr Rankine is facing.
Final arguments continued on Wednesday. The prosecution is now expected to present a rebuttal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report