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Tacoma police officers acquitted of murder charges in death of Black suspect

People view the George Floyd memorial site at the corner of Chicago Ave and 38th Street in Minneapolis, Minn., on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Tacoma, Wash., police officers were acquitted Thursday in the death of Manny Ellis which preceded the Floyd case. Photo by Aaron Joseczfyk/UPI
People view the George Floyd memorial site at the corner of Chicago Ave and 38th Street in Minneapolis, Minn., on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Tacoma, Wash., police officers were acquitted Thursday in the death of Manny Ellis which preceded the Floyd case. Photo by Aaron Joseczfyk/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 21 (UPI) -- A jury in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday found three White police officers not guilty on all charges related to the death of a Black man who died in police custody in 2020.

Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the death of 33-year old Manuel "Manny" Ellis, and officer Timothy Rankine was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter.

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All three officers were facing up to life in prison if they had been convicted. They all pleaded not guilty, according to the Washington State Attorney General's office.

Ellis died while handcuffed and hogtied in police custody, according to reports. He had allegedly been "trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles" when police detained and arrested him, but eyewitness accounts disputed the exact circumstances surrounding the apprehension.

The officers were accused of using deadly force on Ellis during their attempts to detain him.

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Part of the incident was captured on video by a bystander who testified during the trial, and Ellis is heard saying "I can't breathe" on police dispatch audio during the arrest.

Ellis' death preceded that of George Floyd in Minneapolis under similar circumstances, and helped prompt the Black Lives Matter movement in protest of excessive police force and alleged racism among law enforcement departments nationwide.

The state charged the officers in May, 2021, the first time Washington's attorney general had ever filed criminal charges for the unlawful use of deadly force by police. It was the second time the state had filed homicide charges against law enforcement officers since the adoption of Initiative 940 in 2018, which made it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings.

Officers detained and tried to arrest Ellis on March 3, 2020, while he was approaching the vehicles but at least one witness testified that Ellis appeared to be approaching a vehicle as if its occupants had called him over.

Documents show the arrest attempt turned into a physical altercation in which officers tackled and restrained Ellis, and used a stun gun on him multiple times. Rankine admitted to kneeling on Ellis' back to restrain him, as per police policies and procedures he had been taught.

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Rankine was accused of holding Ellis in the prone position and applying pressure to his back despite hearing Ellis say he could not breathe, court documents said.

Court documents say, Burbank and Collins "tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint) on Ellis and shot him with a taser three times, all without justification." They also failed to render aid or call for medical help and put him in "hogtie restraints," the documents said.

Prosecuting attorneys argued that Ellis died due to unnecessary physical force, but defense lawyers claimed he died from an excessive amount of methamphetamine in his system and pre-existing heart conditions. The official cause of death was listed as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office, a condition in which the body is starved for oxygen.

Pierce County, Wash., reached a $4 million settlement agreement with Ellis' family in March 2022.

"I want to start by thanking the jury and court staff for their service," Ferguson wrote in a social media post. "I also want to thank the members of my legal team for their extraordinary hard work and dedication. I know the Ellis family is hurting, and my heart goes out to them."

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The Tacoma Police Department issued a statement following the verdict assuring residents that the department will continue its commitment to creating a just and transparent model of public safety that builds trust between TPD employees and all community members.

"The Tacoma Police Department acknowledges today's not guilty verdicts in the State of Washington vs. Police Officers Burbank, Collins, and Rankine may exacerbate the pain caused by the death of Mr. Ellis," the statement read. "The past nearly four years have been filled with wide-spread anger, mistrust, and apprehension and have severely divided the people of this city. Even though this criminal process has concluded, TPD's leadership and the entire department understand there are many questions about where we all go from here, as a city and as a community."

Ellis family members and supporters cried as they filed out of the courtroom.

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