Defense digs into Manuel Ellis’ drug use at trial of Washington officers accused in man's death

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Brian Hayes / The News Tribune

Defense attorney Casey Arbenz gives opening statements on behalf of defendant Matthew Collins during the trial of three Tacoma Police officers in the killing of Manny Ellis at Pierce County Superior Court, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Tacoma, Wash. Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine stand trial for charges related to the March 2020 killing of Manny Ellis. (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)

TACOMA, Wash. – A lawyer for one of three Washington state police officers charged in the death of Manuel Ellis — a 33-year-old Black man who was punched, shocked with a Taser and then put in a chokehold and held face-down as he pleaded for breath — urged jurors Monday to focus on Ellis' drug use and prior arrests.

The opening statement from Casey Arbenz, an attorney representing Tacoma officer Matthew Collins, came seven weeks into the trial, after prosecutors rested their case last Thursday. Collins and Officer Christopher Burbank face second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, while Officer Timothy Rankine is charged with manslaughter in Ellis' death in Tacoma on March 3, 2020.

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Three witnesses have testified that they saw Collins and Burbank attack Ellis as he walked past their vehicle, and two of them recorded cellphone video of the struggle. But Arbenz highlighted two previous arrests — in 2015 and 2019 — when Ellis was under the influence of methamphetamine, suggesting it made him aggressive.

“We know how drugs affect Mr. Ellis based on those two incidents,” Arbenz said.

Ellis died hogtied and handcuffed, nearly three months before George Floyd’s death at the hands of police would spark an international outcry against police brutality. It became a touchstone for racial justice demonstrators in the Pacific Northwest that summer.

The trial is the first under a 5-year-old Washington state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police who wrongfully use deadly force.

Ellis repeatedly told officers he could not breathe while they applied pressure as he lay prone on the pavement. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from physical restraint. Lawyers for the officers blame the death on methamphetamine in Ellis’ system, combined with a heart irregularity.

Prosecutors with the Washington attorney general’s office have opposed the efforts of defense attorneys to include testimony about Ellis' past arrests, arguing that those cases are not relevant and that Ellis isn’t the one on trial.

Arbenz also sought to highlight Collins' military background and asked jurors to take into account "his 13 years of service to our city and our country … the way he’s fought for you.” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff admonished the attorney, calling the comment inappropriate.

Rankine's attorney, Mark Conrad, called to the stand a former restaurant shift manager who was present on Sept. 21, 2019, when Ellis was arrested for investigation of attempted robbery at a Tacoma fast food restaurant.

Before closing, co-workers informed the shift manager that a shirtless man with camouflage pants and a belt wrapped around his hand entered the store and attempted to take money out of the drawer.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Arron Wolfe, who helped arrest Ellis in 2019, testified that he found Ellis naked and running in and out of the street.

After ordering Ellis to the ground, Wolfe said, he stood with his firearm at the ready. After being compliant for a short time, Ellis then “hopped up and ran at me.” Wolfe ordered Ellis to the ground again and he complied, but Wolfe said Ellis charged one more time and a Taser was used to subdue him.

Wolfe offered the following description of Ellis' demeanor that night: “Very wide eyes. Overheating. Breathing heavily. Grunts. Excitable utterances. Sweating profusely. Not listening to commands."

The defense presented the jury with a bystander video of the 2019 arrest that showed Ellis charging deputies before they deployed the Taser.

Pierce County Sheriff's Deputy Gabriel Bol, who used the Taser that night, said Ellis recovered “very quick” and “basically bounced off the ground," forcing the deputy to use the Taser again.

Boll said Ellis told him he had used “meth and weed.”

After his 2019 arrest, Ellis woke up in a hospital, where a medical technician, Cody Pollock, treated his wounds. Pollock testified that Ellis "sat up, postured at me and made a fist at me.” Ellis’s actions, he said, were “a step up from the normal aggressiveness” he encountered on the job.

Ellis’ demeanor in the hospital was “anxious and fearful” but not aggressive, according to nurse’s notes introduced into evidence. A doctor at the hospital recommended follow-up care in a discharge note in which he urged Ellis — in all caps —to stop using meth.

The trial is expected to last another month.