Killed nearly three months before the world learned George Floyd‘s name, Manuel Ellis’ case finally moves forward. On Thursday, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced his office filed felony charges against the officers.
The Tacoma News Tribune reported that of the five officers with reported involvement in Ellis’ killing, only three were charged. Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins face second-degree murder charges.
Ferguson also charged Timothy Rankine with first-degree manslaughter. The three officers previously served in the Army. And all five Tacoma officers remain on paid administrative leave.
Video shows officers restraining Ellis, 33, with a chokehold, prompting him to repeat, “I can’t breathe.” The chokehold was applied with a knee, similar to Floyd’s murder. He died in police custody on March 3, 2020.
“This is the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, and just the second time homicide charges have been filed in Washington against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018,” read a statement issued by the attorney general’s office.
Gov. Jay Inslee took the case away from the local Sheriff’s office after information surfaced of a conflict within the agency. Inslee turned the investigation over to the Washington State Patrol and the attorney general’s office for prosecution.
In a report last June, the Seattle Times reported that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department failed to disclose the full extent of a deputy’s involvement in restraining Ellis. The outlet also raised issues involving a new police reform law that was supposed to guarantee independent investigations.
Witness reports indicate Burbank and Collins attacked Ellis as he was walking on the night of March 3, 2020, with Burbank throwing his car door open and knocking Ellis down to his knees. All three officers continued to cause Ellis harm, including failing to render medical aid despite Ellis clearly expressing distress. Video and audience evidence captured the brutal beating, which the Tacoma Police Union unsurprisingly downplayed.
Ferguson’s office said charges likely could not have been brought before now, even with the initial delay. According to the attorney general’s office, a multidisciplinary team reviewed the evidence. Further investigation included audio and video experts and use of force expert reviewed all available evidence and witnessed testimony to formulate the basis for the current charges.
A retired King County detective, who was a part of the legal review process, told The News Tribune there was no excuse or mistake to justify the officers’ behavior.
The charges come as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin awaits sentencing after murdering Floyd. Criminal charges against police officers are rare, with experts estimating Chauvin is only the eighth officer convicted of murdering someone while on duty.
And when they are charged, the lack of criminal history and other factors, including judicial leniency, can lead to stark sentencing disparities compared to non-law enforcement defendants. While the lack of prior felony convictions may work in an officer’s favor at sentencing, some officers could have a history of bad acts that rise to felony behavior that have gone uncharged.
In Washington, the standard sentencing range for a defendant with no prior criminal history was 10 to 18 years in prison for second-degree murder. A defendant with no prior criminal history could face 6.5 to 8.5 years. Warrants were issued for the arrest of all three officers.