1 Of 3 Washington Officers Charged In Death Of Black Man Manuel Ellis Testifies In His Own Defense

Defendant Matthew Collins walks jurors through what can be seen in video footage while testifying during the trial of three Tacoma Police officers in the killing of Manny Ellis, at Pierce County Superior Court, Monday, Dec. 4, 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 Ellis. (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)
Defendant Matthew Collins walks jurors through what can be seen in video footage while testifying during the trial of three Tacoma Police officers in the killing of Manny Ellis, at Pierce County Superior Court, Monday, Dec. 4, 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 Ellis. (Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP, Pool)
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TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — One of the three police officers charged with killing Manuel Ellis, a Black man whose death in 2020 as he pleaded for air became a touchstone for racial justice protesters in the Pacific Northwest, took the witness stand in his own defense Monday, saying he lamented Ellis' passing but wouldn't have done anything differently.

The testimony from Tacoma police officer Matthew Collins came as the more than two-month trial draws toward closing arguments.

Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38, have been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while Timothy Rankine, 34, is charged with manslaughter. All three officers have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and remain on paid leave with the Tacoma Police Department.

Ellis was shocked with a Taser, beaten and restrained face down on a Tacoma sidewalk, with police on top of him, as he pleaded for breath. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation, but lawyers for the officers say a high level of methamphetamine in Ellis’ system and a heart irregularity were to blame.

Witnesses — one of whom yelled for the officers to stop attacking Ellis — and a doorbell surveillance camera recorded video of parts of the encounter the night of March 3, 2020. The video showed Ellis with his hands up in a surrender position as Burbank shot a Taser at Ellis’ chest and Collins wrapped an arm around his neck from behind. It also caught Ellis addressing the officers as “sir” as he told them repeatedly he couldn't breathe.

Collins testified that he never heard Ellis say that and wouldn't have done anything differently even if he had.

“Anything that someone would say to us until they’re complying with us, with hands behind their back (to cuff), would be irrelevant to me,” Collins said, according to a pool report from the trial by The Seattle Times.

In cross-examination, special prosecutor Patty Eakes confronted Collins with part of the recording where he used an expletive when telling Ellis to shut up after Ellis asked for breath. Collins said he only heard “animal noises” from Ellis and was experiencing “auditory exclusion” – failure to hear sounds during a stressful situation.

Collins hewed closely to his earlier statements about the fatal encounter: that Ellis initiated it by lifting Collins off the ground and throwing him through the air to land on his back.

Nobody else interviewed by detectives witnessed that, including Collins’ co-defendant, Christopher Burbank. Eyewitnesses testified that Collins and Burbank were the initial aggressors.

Collins called Ellis' death “the worst thing that can happen” for police.

"In this case, undoubtedly Manny was in the wrong, but at the end of the day his mother lost a child, his sister lost a brother,” Collins said.

He also said the incident changed his life in ways he couldn’t imagine. “I didn’t think in my wildest nightmares that the state would come after us for this,” he said.

Their trial marks the first courtroom test of a voter-approved police-accountability measure in Washington state that removed legal barriers to charging police officers for on-duty deaths.

Collins and Burbank said in statements to detectives that Ellis threatened to punch Burbank and slammed his hand against their police cruiser, so Burbank knocked Ellis to the ground with his car door, starting what Collins described as a “melee.”

Rankine and his partner were the first backup officers to arrive on the scene. Rankine told detectives he sat on Ellis’ back until medics arrived, even after Ellis said he could not breathe.

On the stand Monday, Collins said he interpreted Ellis’ “body language” to mean he was focusing aggressively on Burbank, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat of the patrol cruiser Collins was driving. So Collins said he got out to confront Ellis.

“As soon as I get to the front of the vehicle, he takes his focus off of Burbank and comes right at me and picks me up by my vest and throws me back in the intersection,” Collins said, describing what nobody else at the scene has testified to seeing. He claimed Ellis also struck him, something no witnesses reported seeing. Photos of Collins after the incident did not show any injuries.

By the time paramedics arrived, Ellis had been struck by fists and elbows, placed in a neck hold, jolted three times with a Taser, handcuffed with ankle hobbles strapped to his wrists behind his back, had a nylon spit hood placed over his face and was knelt or sat on by multiple officers. Collins testified that he never expected Ellis to die on the night they struggled.