Should Manny Ellis’ drug use be discussed at trial of officers accused of killing him?

As the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged with killing Manuel Ellis inches closer, a battle over what evidence the jury should be allowed to see and hear is heating up.

In the last week, attorneys for the prosecution and defense have filed more than 100 pages of motions arguing whether some of Ellis’ and the officers’ prior experiences, such as arrests, mental health issues, police training and substance use, should be included. Attorneys for one officer questioned whether public interest in the case — which has led to media scrutiny and the painting of murals of Ellis calling for justice — is enough to isolate the jury from the public during trial.

It will be up to the trial judge to decide what evidence is allowed in and whether the jury should be sequestered.

After several delays, officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine are scheduled to face trial Sept. 18, more than three-and-a-half years after they allegedly beat, Tasered and restrained Ellis on a South End street corner on March 3, 2020.

Ellis, 33, died at the scene, and the Pierce County medical examiner later ruled the death a homicide. In an autopsy report, the examiner found physical restraint caused Ellis’ death, with methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease contributing. A spit hood placed on him was also a major factor.

Prosecutors want prior arrests excluded

Prosecutors want to exclude evidence that Ellis was arrested in September 2019 for allegedly trying to rob a fast-food restaurant on Pacific Avenue on the grounds that it did not involve the TPD officers charged in this case, and they weren’t aware of it when they encountered Ellis in 2020. Lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, argued that the incident would be impermissible character evidence that would prejudice the jury.

The attempted robbery occurred just after 8 p.m. on Sept. 21. According to charging documents, a shirtless man came in with a belt wrapped around his hand and told employees “give me all your money” while he tried to open the cash register. A scuffle ensued, and the would-be robber fled after he was punched several times causing “heavy bleeding,” records state.

The three Tacoma police officers charged in the killing of Manuel Ellis – Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine (left to right) – appeared in Pierce County Superior Court for an early October hearing.
The three Tacoma police officers charged in the killing of Manuel Ellis – Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine (left to right) – appeared in Pierce County Superior Court for an early October hearing.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department deputies responded and saw Ellis nearly a mile north on Pacific, shirtless and covered in blood. Deputies struggled to take him into custody. According to Attorney General’s Office prosecutors, a deputy pointed a handgun at Ellis, and he was shocked with a Taser twice. Ellis told officers at the scene he was on “meth and weed,” prosecutors said. He was charged with second-degree robbery, but the case was dismissed after he died.

Prosecutors argued that Ellis’ other arrests and convictions should be excluded on similar grounds. According to the motion, Ellis had been arrested 28 times, and he had four felony convictions from 2014 to 2017, none of which were considered violent.

Collins’ attorneys argued in court filings that Ellis’ 2019 arrest is relevant to the defense. They intend to introduce it as evidence alongside the inpatient-treatment reports Ellis subsequently participated in. Those reports concern Ellis’ methamphetamine use, which prosecutors want to exclude from trial, along with his mental health issues, both of which the state said Ellis struggled with for years.

Defense wants to admit arrest, treatment reports

Defense attorneys listed a number of reasons they want the arrest and treatment reports admitted.

First, attorneys wrote that the night Ellis died, officers saw “very specific conduct” they attribute to meth intoxication. They wrote that those observations contradicted prosecutors’ version of events, which, according to the defense, suggested officers simply attacked Ellis as he walked down the street.

Second, the attorneys said two witnesses who video-recorded some of Ellis’ encounter with police reported that Ellis was calm and cooperative and that he didn’t resist officers but lay on the ground while attacked, at one point telling law enforcement he could not breath.

Defense attorneys said those statements contradicted the accounts of Collins and Burbank, who contend Ellis fought them with “superhuman strength” after he punched their patrol car’s window after previously trying to open the door of another person’s car nearby.

Other officers and paramedics reported Ellis was exhibiting signs of “excited delirium” while he thrashed in restraints, the defense argued in its motions. Excited delirium is a term not recognized as a diagnosis by the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association or the National Association of Medical Examiners. Prosecutors have made a motion to exclude opinions about it from trial, except when offered by an expert or in regard to officers’ training on it.

Paramedics’ and officers’ observations of Ellis’ “conduct and symptoms” that night support a defense expert’s opinion that Ellis died of methamphetamine intoxication and an enlarged heart from chronic meth abuse, his defense team wrote, another reason it wants his treatment reports admitted as evidence.

Finally, the evidence of Ellis’ previous arrest and drug use would get directly to an element of the crime Collins is charged with, murder, the lawyers said. They argued that the 2019 arrest and Ellis’ acknowledgment of how meth affected him — he apparently said during outpatient treatment that he’d been on meth for five days at the time, which led to a “full psychosis” — supports the officers’ account of Ellis’ behavior.

“The officers will testify that Mr. Ellis attacked their vehicle and they attempted to appropriately restrain him,” attorneys for Collins wrote. “Because of Mr. Ellis’ self-described meth-psychosis the officers had to struggle mightily to get Mr. Ellis into custody.”

Will jury need to be sequestered?

Ellis’ death in police custody sparked calls for justice in Tacoma. Some people chanted his name at protests against police shootings and racial injustice during the summer of 2020, put signs up in their homes calling for justice and painted colorful murals around town in his honor.

The case also brought local and national media attention, and attorneys for Burbank claim publicity and public artwork could prejudice a jury against him. Requesting that the jury be sequestered, the lawyers specifically cited a “Justice for Manny” mural blocks from the courthouse, a “Black Lives Matter” mural at Tollefson Plaza and the Seattle Times and KNKX’s podcast, “The Walk Home,” as potential issues for jurors traveling to court.

A photo of the Manuel Ellis mural on Hilltop in Tacoma, Wash.
A photo of the Manuel Ellis mural on Hilltop in Tacoma, Wash.

If sequestered, jurors could be isolated in separate housing for the duration of the trial, have their access to the internet restricted and be closely monitored.

Attorneys for Burbank and Rankine also have requested that court spectators not be allowed to wear clothing or other items that are political or suggestive of the officers’ guilt.

Rankine’s attorneys said that news stories have suggested racism is an element of this case, and observers might fill the halls of the courtroom. They argued if court goers are allowed to wear political clothing, the jury will feel the pressure. Attorneys for Rankine and Burbank also asked that any mention of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer, be prohibited from trial.

In this case, Ellis, a Black man, was allegedly killed by two white officers and an Asian-American officer. The attorneys said drawing comparisons would be highly inflammatory. Rankine’s attorneys specifically requested that any evidence showing his alleged actions were “racially motivated” be excluded.

“Though some media coverage of this case has suggested racism played a part in this incident, there is not a shred of evidence that race played any role in Off. Rankine’s actions that night,” the lawyers wrote.