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Defense attorneys want to dig into Manny Ellis’ past. Here’s what they can say

A Black man wearing a blue collared shirt smiles.
Courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective
KNKX Archive
Manuel "Manny" Ellis

Attorneys are generally barred from introducing individual’s prior “bad acts” as improper character evidence at trials. But the question of how Manny Ellis’ struggle with Tacoma police on March 3, 2020, began is big enough that Judge Bryan Chushcoff is allowing defense attorneys some leeway when it comes to the victim in this case.

Attorneys can’t discuss prior misconduct allegations against the charged officers, Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Chushcoff ruled that attorneys are prohibited from going into the specifics of Ellis’ history with drug addiction, mental health treatment and law enforcement contacts. They can only discuss generally how his mental illness and drug use may have affected his behavior and physical health the night he died, save for two of Ellis’ arrests that involved methamphetamine use and struggling with law enforcement.

Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office vigorously opposed defense attorneys’ motions to include testimony about the arrests in September 2019 and several years earlier in September 2015.

The 2019 case involved Pierce County deputies responding to reports that Ellis was robbing an A&W restaurant, according to court papers. When deputies arrived, Ellis was naked in the street and they ordered him onto the ground. The deputies Tasered and restrained Ellis when he got up and ran toward them. Ellis later told a mental health provider he was in a “meth psychosis.”

Prosecutors said in court that the deputies involved recently told defense attorneys that Ellis had “superhuman strength,” which was not in their initial reports.

The 2015 case involved a domestic dispute where he bit a former girlfriend who also reported biting Ellis, according to court papers. Ellis later got into a patrol car “without incident” but deputies pulled him out when they noticed he was grabbing for a syringe in his pocket. Deputies struggled with Ellis to get him into restraints, and the syringe field tested positive for meth.

Prosecutors wrote in courts papers that they wanted to avoid mini trials about the arrests, which “would, in effect, make this case about the character of the victim, Manuel Ellis, rather than about the conduct of the defendants on the night that Mr. Ellis died.”

Chushcoff disagreed, ruling the incidents could help point to a motive for Ellis allegedly attacking the Tacoma officers in March 2020 and show how he may have acted on methamphetamine if he was in psychosis. He told defense attorneys they can’t talk about the specifics of Ellis’ criminal charges or compare the level of force needed to restrain him to March 2020.

Ellis’ sister, Monét Washington, told KNKX in August that she thinks the details of the previous arrests could be helpful to the prosecution’s case.

“In my eyes, those officers handled their interaction with a person that was high on meth appropriately,” Washington said. “And he was still treated with more dignity and more respect than what my brother was given the night he was killed.”

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.