- In March 2020, Manuel Ellis died in a violent confrontation with three Tacoma police officers.
- The Washington officers, Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine, have been charged in Ellis’ death.
- According to an eyewitness, Ellis, who was assaulted, held face-down on a sidewalk, and shocked with a Taser,
Eyewitness testimony Tuesday in the continuing trial three police officers, who are white and Asian American, charged with the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man, starkly contradicted the picture the officers’ lawyers painted.
Keyon Lowery, 26, told the jury in Pierce County Superior Court that Ellis didn’t act aggressively toward the Tacoma, Washington, police officers nor did he fight back, and that he was “no threat at all, none.”
Lowery said he was in “disbelief” with how the officers acted and said he believed the officers “were in the wrong.”
Tacoma Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, both white, are charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Ellis on March 3, 2020. Officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, is charged with manslaughter. All three have pleaded not guilty. They are free on bail and remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department on paid leave.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled the March 3, 2020, death of Ellis, 33, a homicide caused by lack of oxygen during physical restraint. Ellis repeatedly told police that he couldn’t breathe while they continued to apply force. Ellis also had methamphetamine in his system, and lawyers for the officers have offered a drug overdose as an alternative theory in Ellis’ cause of death.
Ellis’ death came just weeks before George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing.
Casey Arbenz, one of Collins’ lawyers, characterized Lowery and his former girlfriend Sara McDowell, who recorded cellphone video of the officers and Ellis, as “arguably the state’s most significant witnesses” during Tuesday’s proceedings. That’s because the witnesses say they saw how the physical confrontation between Ellis and the officers began.
How the struggle started has been a central point of the officers’ defense, particularly for Collins and Burbank, who were the first officers to encounter Ellis. During opening statements on Oct. 3 and throughout the first week of testimony, the officers’ defense teams have emphasized the absence of video footage showing how the struggle started.
Collins told Pierce County sheriff’s detectives that Ellis had attacked him by hurling him through the air to land on his back. Burbank contradicted that account, saying he slammed a police cruiser door into Ellis, knocking him to the ground, because he feared that Ellis might become aggressive toward Collins. Though diverging in details, the officers’ statements both claimed that Ellis had acted aggressively toward them, justifying the force they used against him.
Lowery, who was driving in a convoy behind McDowell on the night Ellis died, said he saw Ellis was walking away from the police cruiser. Collins was the driver and Burbank was his passenger, police records show. Ellis walked back to the cruiser “like someone got his attention,” and as he approached it, the passenger’s door swung open, knocking Ellis to the ground, Lowery testified.
“He never really made it to the car,” Lowery said. Burbank was almost instantly on top of Ellis and swung up to three times to punch Ellis, according to Lowery. Collins exited the driver’s side of the vehicle and jogged over to Ellis, then took control of his legs, Lowery testified.
As Lowery left the scene, he said it appeared the officers had apprehended Ellis and were in control of him.
McDowell was expected to testify Tuesday afternoon.
This is the first trial under a new Washington state law that makes it easier to prosecute police who wrongfully use deadly force.
The trial is expected to run four days each week until December.