‘I can’t breathe’: How Manuel Ellis was killed by police | Black Lives Matter

Tacoma, Washington State – Marcia Carter, 62, stands on the sidewalk gazing solemnly on the single-storey housing unit with its peeling white and blue paint. The entrance porch of the decaying property is sealed off with plywood. Beside Marcia, on a patch of dying grass, is a small wood crucifix, wrapped in a Seattle Seahawks bandana, and dotted with stickers of musical notes. It’s inscribed with a date: 03-03-2020.

It was right here that Marcia’s son, Manuel Elijah Ellis, was killed by Tacoma cops as he walked house from a comfort retailer two years in the past. His closing phrases have been, “I can’t breathe.”

“The police murdered him,” Marcia says coldly, every phrase punctuated with fury and unhappiness.

“No one was there to avoid wasting my son,” the retired highschool steerage counselor provides.

Manuel was handcuffed, tased, and suffocated to dying. An post-mortem dominated his dying a murder.

He was 33 years previous.

The police narrative

On March 3, 2020, Manuel walked right into a south Tacoma 7-Eleven and acquired a field of raspberry donuts and a bottle of water. He paid for his snacks and left the shop at 11:11pm. Quickly after, he was useless.

Just a few blocks from the shop, whereas strolling east alongside 96th Road, Manuel encountered Tacoma cops Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins.

Burbank and Collins, whose account of the lethal arrest was contradicted by three eyewitnesses, in addition to video recordings of the incident, would later inform crime scene investigators that they had first seen Manuel appearing erratically and chasing after an unidentified motorist’s automotive at a set of close by visitors lights.

The 2 officers informed detectives that Manuel then started banging on their police cruiser, attacked them as they exited the automobile, and fought their makes an attempt to detain him, in the end leading to his dying, based on a Pierce County Sheriff’s Division supplemental report (PDF).

Tacoma police denied any wrongdoing and portrayed Manuel because the aggressor.

A 7-Eleven store in south Tacoma seen from the parking lot with three cars parked outside
The south Tacoma 7-Eleven the place Manuel Ellis bought snacks shortly earlier than he was killed [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

For weeks, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Workplace, which had been requested to deal with the investigation, parroted town police’s version of occasions. Specifically, then-spokesperson Ed Troyer — who was later elected sheriff in November 2020 — vehemently denied that officers had positioned a knee on Ellis’ again or head.

On the time, the Tacoma Police Division didn’t equip its officers with physique cameras, which Manuel’s household and lawyer say allowed regulation enforcement to largely management the narrative round his dying.

That was till citizen video — two clips filmed by a passing motorist — and recordings from a close-by house surveillance digital camera emerged, difficult the police’s version of occasions.

The witness accounts

Prosecutors say three separate eyewitnesses, together with a pizza supply driver, and two motorists (certainly one of whom filmed cell phone footage of the encounter) mentioned the unarmed Black man had interacted with Burbank and Collins for roughly 10 to fifteen seconds as he handed by their squad cruiser.

They described the temporary change as “peaceable” and “respectful” and mentioned Manuel displayed “no indicators of aggression”.

Then, they defined, as Manuel walked away from the police automobile, Burbank “abruptly swung open the passenger door”, knocking Manuel to his knees. In line with the witnesses, as Manuel tried to rise up, Burbank climbed on prime of him.

“[Manuel] Ellis was not preventing again,” a possible trigger assertion obtained by Al Jazeera English mentioned. The doc that particulars the idea for fees additionally acknowledged: “All three civilian witnesses on the intersection…state that they by no means noticed [Manuel] Ellis strike on the officers.”

Whereas Collins utilized a neck maintain, Burbank aimed his Taser at Ellis’ chest and deployed it, delivering a five-second jolt of electrical energy by way of Manuel’s physique, based on prosecutors.

As Manuel lay handcuffed on the concrete, gasping for breath, he repeated the phrases — “I can’t breathe” — a number of occasions. In line with the house surveillance footage that captured the arrest, one officer responded by telling him to “shut the f*** up”.

A vacant single-storey white house with a small garden in front of it
The entrance yard of the vacant south Tacoma house, footsteps from the place Manuel Ellis died, has been become a memorial backyard [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

At 11:24pm, a 3rd Tacoma police officer, Timothy Rankine, and his companion, arrived on the scene. Doorbell digital camera footage exhibits Rankine pouncing on prime of Manuel, as Burbank and Collins restrained his again and legs, respectively.

Rankine put “all [his] weight to the center of [Manuel’s] physique, securing [his] proper knee excessive of his backbone slightly below the bottom of his neck” along with his “left knee in the course of his backbone, on his decrease again,” based on the possible trigger assertion.

Cell phone video, shot from a special angle by a passing motorist, confirmed one officer putting his knee on Manuel’s again.

“Hey! Cease! Oh my god, cease hitting him!” the motive force yelled at officers within the recording, which Al Jazeera English has seen, earlier than driving off.

‘Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe’

Rankine later recalled how, as he utilized stress to Manuel’s again, he heard him make “actually unusual animal grunting noises.” Manuel once more repeated that he couldn’t breathe in a “very calm regular voice,” Rankine mentioned, based on prosecutors.

“If you happen to’re speaking to me, you may breathe simply effective,” Rankine informed Manuel, the possible trigger assertion alleged.

Manuel repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” at the least 3 times inside a minute of Rankine’s arrival on the scene. A minute later, his legs have been hobbled after which tied to {the handcuffs} behind his again. The 33-year-old remained face down on the concrete.

A police radio then captured Manuel’s final identified phrases: “Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe,” based on the case’s possible trigger assertion.

Manuel, who was bleeding from his face, then started to “snore,” based on Lieutenant. Anthony Messineo, of Pierce County Sheriff’s Workplace, who arrived on the web site of the incident round 11:25pm. He then “went quiet” and “stopped transferring,” based on Messineo’s account.

A smashed box of donuts is seen beside a police vehicle close to the covered body of Manuel Ellis
A field of smashed donuts, which Manuel Ellis bought from the 7-Eleven shortly earlier than he was killed, is pictured beneath a Tacoma police cruiser, close to his physique, on March 3, 2020 [Washington State Police]

Roughly two minutes later, officer Armando Farinas positioned a spit masks over Manuel’s face. Manuel remained hogtied whereas Rankine continued making use of stress to his again.

By the point emergency responders arrived roughly seven minutes later and eliminated the spit hood, Manuel was unconscious, barely respiration, and had a faint pulse. Paramedics unsuccessfully tried CPR. He was pronounced useless at 12:12am. A spent Taser cartridge and a smashed field of donuts have been discovered by his physique.

As investigators continued to course of the scene, at the least 20 regulation enforcement officers from metropolis, county, and state businesses descended on the intersection of 96th Avenue and Ainsworth Avenue.

‘They watched him die’

Manuel died from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, because of bodily restraint, based on a Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report. A pathologist concluded the style through which Ellis was hogtied and pinned face-down on the concrete had triggered important respiratory misery, which had seemingly brought about his dying.

The spit hood, the within of which was coated with Manuel’s blood and mucus, additional obstructed his respiration, the medical expert decided.

The model of spit masks used on Ellis got here with particular directions that it not be used on anybody affected by respiration points, warning asphyxiation may outcome from improper use. On the time, the Tacoma Police Division didn’t have an official procedural coverage in place for the way to correctly deploy and apply spit masks.

Blood exams revealed methamphetamine in Manuel’s system, however based on his post-mortem, this seemingly wasn’t a consider his dying.

A mural depicts Manuel Ellis against a black background with the words Justice for Manny written beside it
A mural commemorating Manuel Ellis close to MLK Jr. Approach and South eleventh Road in Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

James Bible, the Ellis household’s lawyer, says the police account of what occurred to Manuel that evening has been “completely debunked”.

“Manuel Ellis was lynched,” Bible informed Al Jazeera English. “They choked him, tased him, threw him to the bottom, hogtied him, put a spit masks over his head, and watched him die. They then created an entire nother narrative.”

“[Manuel] was murdered. He died by, before everything, a callous disregard for human life,” Bible says.

‘How are you going to negotiate over an individual’s life?’

Manuel was killed practically three months earlier than anti-police protests swept the nation following the dying of George Floyd. When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for greater than 9 minutes, he, too, had informed officers, “I can’t breathe.”

“With George [Floyd], all the things was fast,” Marcia says, citing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s homicide conviction and 22.5-year sentence in Floyd’s dying. “Inside months that they had all the things settled.

“However for my son, we’ve got to attend for 2 years when it’s plain what the county coroner acknowledged in his paperwork – that my son was the sufferer of homicide, murder,” Marcia says. “There wasn’t no one else there that killed him.”

In June 2020, a state probe into Manuel’s dying was ordered.

Two Tacoma cops, Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas, who have been on-scene on the time of Manuel’s dying, have been exonerated of any coverage violations and restored to lively responsibility.

However in Could 2021, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins have been arrested and charged with second-degree homicide, and Timothy Rankine was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three have pleaded not responsible to legal fees. They’re at present suspended on paid administrative depart, a spokesperson for the Tacoma Police Division confirmed. They’ve all bonded out of jail, pending trial.

Brett Purtzer, Burbank’s lawyer declined to talk on-record on the open case when contacted by Al Jazeera. Collins’ authorized staff didn’t reply to requests for remark. The Tacoma Police Division additionally declined to reply questions concerning the lively investigation.

However Anne Melani Bremner, a defence lawyer for Rankine, informed Al Jazeera: “Officer Rankine didn’t do something mistaken. He assisted with help and did completely all the things he was required to do after which some.”

“We’re vigorously defending the case,” the veteran police union lawyer defined. “He didn’t trigger the dying of Manny Ellis and he acted inside departmental tips and insurance policies.”

A pretrial standing convention listening to is ready for July 15, court docket information present. The case’s jury trial is anticipated to get beneath means in October.

Final yr, Manuel’s household filed a federal civil lawsuit in opposition to the Metropolis of Tacoma and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Workplace, looking for damages of $40m. On March 22, 2022, Pierce County Council permitted a partial $4m settlement associated to the involvement of two sheriff’s deputies’ in Manuel’s dying.

The settlement triggered combined emotions for Manuel’s household.

“It’s like they suppose that Manny’s life was solely price $4m. How are you going to negotiate over an individual’s life and the price of all of it? It’s very sickening and it’s actually miserable,” says Manuel’s sister, Monét Carter-Mixon.

The household continues to be pursuing its federal civil declare in opposition to the Metropolis of Tacoma.

‘It’s been hell’

Within the two years since her son was killed, Marcia has been in survival mode.

“I cried daily, daily for the entire first yr, okay?” she explains. “It’s been hell. I miss him each freaking day. I’m therapeutic, I’m mourning nonetheless and making an attempt to get by way of this time. Life has actually modified for all of us. It’s a tough highway that I’m strolling proper now however I’m strolling it as a result of that is the place I’m alleged to be.”

Marcia Carter stands near her family's home
Marcia Carter pictured close to her household’s house in Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

The grieving mom lives with lung illness, anxiousness, and despair — situations she says have worsened within the wake of her son’s dying.

“After [Manuel] handed is when my anxiousness stage elevated,” Marcia explains. “I’m mad. Mentally, it’s been off the chain. If I’m not on remedy, I’m no good. I’ve to have meds to maintain me centered and calm.”

She additionally suffers from microscopic polyangiitis, a uncommon sort of vasculitis, which damages blood vessels, induces power fatigue and may interrupt organ operate.

“It was like I used to be making an attempt to get out of a jail cell … simply get away, and I don’t know, simply be snug. It was laborious. I didn’t know what I used to be going to do. Your coronary heart races. It’s such as you’re having a coronary heart assault, really. You are feeling like that is the tip.”

‘Saved my soul’

There’s one factor, nonetheless, that has introduced Marcia a semblance of peace: gardening.

Specifically, she has discovered energy and solace in restoring the uncared for property the place her son took his closing breaths and which she has become a makeshift memorial. She calls it “Manny’s Backyard”.

“That backyard proper there saved my soul from going to hell as a result of I used to be on my means,” Marcia says. “That backyard gave me peace. It gave me life. It gave me love.”

Marcia Carter, wearing trousers and a t-shirt in a camouflage print and a face mask, stands in a garden beside a blue wooden sign with white painted letters spelling Manny's
Marcia Carter directs neighborhood volunteers at Manny’s Backyard in south Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

As Marcia speaks, a couple of dozen volunteers scurry about, weeding flower beds, and hauling wheelbarrows filled with landscaping rocks.

“I miss him daily and all I can do is go to the cemetery,” she says. “God put it in my coronary heart. He mentioned: ‘Why don’t you create one thing lovely right here and as a substitute of going over there, after which crying on a regular basis, , go over there and repair it up’. It was so nasty. It was filthy… the grass.”

‘He touched individuals’

Manuel’s homicide has taken a toll on your entire household.

“We stroll round feeling very empty,” 31-year-old Monét explains. “Like once you’re forgetting one thing and also you don’t know what it’s. That’s how I really feel like on a day-to-day foundation. After which I’m reminded rapidly, like, oh, it’s as a result of Manny’s not right here, that’s what’s gone.”

Manuel was a “gregarious” and “vibrant” “social butterfly,” in addition to a loving father of two, who adored music and “cracking jokes,” based on his household.

“He touched individuals,” Marcia says. “My son beloved his household and he beloved his buddies. He was an excellent particular person and he made you chortle. He was a comic. That boy was so humorous.”

The household’s center baby, Manuel was deeply religious and a lifelong musician.

Rising up, he performed soccer, took theatre lessons, and fell in love with playing the drums.

Childhood abuse

However Manuel additionally endured nice trauma. His father died of abdomen most cancers two months after he was born. When his mom later remarried, Manuel’s stepfather bodily abused him.

“He by no means actually had his organic father in his life,” Monét says. “That made him really feel some sort of means. He at all times puzzled rather a lot, questioned rather a lot, as a result of my father, who my mother married after Manny’s father died, was very abusive however that was all Manny knew… Manny was type of like my dad’s punching bag.”

As a baby, he was additionally sexually abused by an older cousin, his sister mentioned. Manuel later started experimenting with medication and alcohol as an adolescent.

“He began to be extra rebellious,” Monét says. “He began smoking weed and consuming alcohol, going overboard. He was making an attempt to suppress what occurred to him as a baby. He was by no means taught the way to course of [it].”

At 17, Manuel was arrested on theft fees. By 18, he had tried methamphetamine. By the age of 24, he was a each day person.

“That grew to become his drug of alternative,” Monét says.

As Manuel’s dependancy deepened, his psychological well being deteriorated. He was recognized with schizophrenia, bipolar dysfunction, despair, ADHD, and PTSD, and was prescribed a number of drugs and temper stabilisers.

Manuel’s drug behavior led to various encounters with police. In 2014, he pleaded responsible to second-degree identification theft, based on separate court docket information. He was jailed for 23 days.

In 2019, police arrested Manuel for allegedly assaulting a fast-food employee throughout an tried theft whereas excessive on methamphetamine. Manuel was out on bail on the time of his dying. The case was dismissed in April 2020 – a month after Manuel’s dying.

‘This mild got here on him’

Within the weeks and months main as much as his lethal encounter with Tacoma police, Manuel was remodeling his life, based on his household and others who knew him.

In 2019, decided to get clear, he moved into God’s Palms Up, a sober-living house in south Tacoma.

He moved right into a shared room within the group house and rapidly earned a repute as a respectful, form, and tidy tenant.

“He simply fell in love with goin’ to church,” Cedric Armstrong, a drug and alcohol counselor, who operates the transitional dwelling facility, informed detectives, based on a police report.

A photograph of Manuel Ellis in a shop posing with a baseball bat
A ‘gifted’ drummer, Manuel was deeply religious, based on his household. The Washington father struggled with lifelong psychological well being and dependancy points [Monét Carter Mixon]

Manuel rapidly grew to become a fixture in his church neighborhood. He underwent drug remedy and was routinely screened — and examined damaging — for narcotics. By all accounts, Manuel was “flourishing.”

“Manny confirmed all people that, should you received a second probability, to make the most of that,” Cedric, 57, informed Al Jazeera by phone. “He was engaged on himself. This mild got here on him. He discovered the way to chortle once more.”

He started enjoying the drums in his church’s band. On the evening he died, he had performed at a night worship service, based on Cedric, his mentor and sponsor.

“Man, when he hopped on the drums, it simply blew me away,” Cedric mentioned. “His expertise have been positively subsequent stage…how his mind was pondering of the way to organize these songs.”

Manuel additionally emerged as a pillar in his circle of relatives, notably for his sister, a working mom of six, whose youngsters he usually babysat.

“My youthful two, he principally cared for them since they have been, like, newborns,” Monét says. “I didn’t need them to go to daycare. So he was a dependable childcare person who I had.”

Manuel additionally had two youngsters of his personal and was within the course of of creating a relationship with them on the time of his dying.

“He needed to stroll on the trail that he was chosen to stroll on — he was bored with operating,” Marcia displays. “He was going to do the appropriate factor. He was within the church 4 days per week enjoying the drums. He was there. I noticed the transformation in my son. He needed to do the appropriate factor.”

A small wooden cross marks the spot on small patch of grass where Manuel Ellis was killed
A wood cross marks the world the place Manuel Ellis was killed by Tacoma cops [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

‘Manny didn’t should die’

Because the household braces itself for the approaching homicide trial, Manuel’s dying has sparked police reform domestically and on a state stage.

It’s now necessary for all uniformed Tacoma cops to put on physique cameras and town’s police drive has additionally banned chokeholds and neck restraints, applied a process for spit masks, and up to date procedures surrounding using leg restraints.

Pushed partly by Manuel’s dying, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed sweeping police reform laws banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds and tear gasoline, and proscribing various different controversial police techniques. Manuel’s dying additionally triggered the creation of a state process drive in 2020 to supervise unbiased opinions of police-involved killings.

“Manny didn’t should die,” Marcia says. “I miss him. It hurts my coronary heart. He needed to be the sacrifice for the household. However I do know he received his crown … My son is in no extra ache.”