Closing arguments start in trial of 3 Washington state police officers charged in Black man’s death

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TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A Black man who was shocked, beaten and hogtied facedown on a sidewalk pleaded for breath during his arrest in Washington state, and the three police officers charged in his death did not respond to his pleas, a prosecutor told the jury in closing arguments of their trial Monday.

Had the officers done what most people would do if someone was struggling to breathe, Ellis would be alive today, said special prosecutor Patty Eakes, who is working for the Washington Attorney General’s office.

“They chose instead to treat him like an animal, in the most dehumanizing position you can imagine,” she said.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide and determined he died of hypoxia due to physical restraint.

Ellis died March 3, 2020, nearly three months before George Floyd’s death would spark an international outcry against police brutality. The trial is the first in which an officer was charged in a death of a suspect since Washington voters approved a measure in 2018 removing a longstanding requirement that prosecutors had to prove police acted with malice to charge them criminally for using deadly force. No other state had such a hurdle to charging officers.

Two of the Tacoma, Washington, officers — Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38 — were charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Timothy Rankine, 34, is charged with manslaughter. Their trial is concluding this week after nine weeks of testimony.

The officers’ lawyers are scheduled to give their closing arguments Tuesday. The defense has said that Ellis was the aggressor and that he attacked the officers with “super-human strength” and eventually died of a drug overdose and a damaged heart.

Witness testimony and video presented at trial was key in the case.

Three witnesses said they saw the officers sitting in their patrol car as Ellis approached and walked to the passenger side, engaging in what looked like some sort of conversation.

When Ellis turned to leave, Burbank threw open the door and knocked Ellis to the ground, all three witnesses said. Two of them pulled out their phones and started recording video, parts of which Eakes played for the jury.

Burbank and Collins gave their official statements before they knew there was audio and video of the encounter, Eakes said. They claimed Ellis attacked them violently and relentlessly and didn’t say a coherent word.

“But you know that’s not true,” Eakes told the jury. “He did speak after he was pinned to the ground. He said he couldn’t breathe, sir, politely and nicely.”

Collins responded by saying, “Shut the (expletive) up, man,” Eakes said.

When Rankine showed up and pinned Ellis to the ground, even though he was in handcuffs, Ellis said he couldn’t breathe three more times.

Rankine responded by saying, “If you’re talking to me you can breathe just fine.” After that, they put hobbles on Ellis’ ankles and connected them to his handcuffs. He remained in that position as he slowly died, Eakes said.

“If you’re in the custody of the police, you’re in their care and it’s incumbent on the police to take care of you,” Eakes said. Instead, the three officers “chose to treat Mr. Ellis like he was less than human. That’s why they face criminal charges.”

The second-degree murder charges filed against Burbank and Collins do not mean they set out to intentionally kill Ellis, she said. The charge is also called “felony murder,” meaning a felony was being committed and someone died. In this case, the prosecution argues the officers committed the felony of unlawful imprisonment or assault.

Eakes told the jury that they don’t need to unanimously agree on which felony was committed to find the two officers guilty, only that Ellis died during the commission of a felony. They also have the option of manslaughter, which is the charge Rankine faces.

Eakes was slated to continue her closing argument Tuesday morning.

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