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What's happened so far in the trial of three Tacoma police officers

Monet Carter-Mixon, sister of Manny Ellis testifying during the trial of Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine in the killing of Manny Ellis at Pierce County Superior Court , Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Tacoma, Wash. A photo of her brother Manny Ellis is seen in the foreground.
John Froschauer
/
Pool Photo - AP
Monét Carter-Mixon, sister of Manny Ellis testifying during the trial of Tacoma Police Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine in the killing of Manny Ellis at Pierce County Superior Court , Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Tacoma, Wash. A photo of her brother Manny Ellis is seen in the foreground.

The trial of the three officers charged with murder and manslaughter in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis is entering its third week of testimony.

KNKX reporters Mayowa Aina and Jared Brown have been covering the trial every day.

They sat down together to talk about the forensic evidence and key witness testimony that's been presented so far.

Click "Listen" above to hear their discussion or read the transcript below.

Follow KNKX's ongoing coverage and find a live stream of the trial at knkx.org/tpdtrial.


Transcript

Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick: The trial of the three police officers charged with murder and manslaughter and the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis is entering its third week of testimony. KNKX reporters Mayowa Aina and Jared Brown have been covering the trial every day. They sat down together to talk about the forensic evidence and key witness testimony that's been presented so far.

KNKX reporter Jared Brown: Mayowa, I think we should start with the first witness in this trial, Grant Fredericks, he's a forensic video analyst for the state.

KNKX Special Projects reporter and producer Mayowa Aina: Right. So Fredericks was the one who took all of the video and audio evidence and kind of put it all together into one master file, essentially. What stood out to you about his testimony?

Brown: Yeah, so one of the key videos in this case came from a pizza delivery driver. It captures officers using the neck restraint and tasering Ellis, but it didn't have audio originally. And there's a doorbell camera that had audio of Ellis struggling and saying he couldn't breathe, but its view was blocked by a pillar on the house. So putting those two together added so much context to the grunts and screams we hear. It shows when Ellis was struggling against the weight of officers and getting tasered.

Aina: I remember he was going frame by frame by frame, he could even zoom in on some of the parts. And he talked a lot about how he was able to do that.

Brown: Yeah, he created this frame by frame slideshow, he's able to point to how long Ellis had his hands up, the period he appears to go limp from a neck hold. And the point when an officer pulled one of Ellis' hands behind his back. Can we listen to when defense attorneys tried to push him on some of his findings?

Aina: Yeah.

[Audio clip]

Defense attorney: And at no point does Mr. Ellis put his hands behind his back as directed?

Forensic video analyst Grant Fredericks: That's not correct. I testified yesterday that he puts his hand behind his back.

Defense attorney: Well, I think you showed us yesterday that one of the officers had his arm up and tried to get it behind his back. Is that right?

Fredericks: That's after he, Mr. Ellis, I tracked his hands. His right hand was under his chest while Officer Collins was over top of his head. He raised his head, pulled his hand out from his chest, put his hand behind his back. Officer Burbank reached down, picked up his hand and then he had control. But your characterization, that at no time did he do that, that's incorrect.

[End audio clip]

Aina: And one of the other important witnesses that we heard from in the past two weeks were the eyewitnesses Sara McDowell and Keyon Lowery, who saw a little bit of what happened just before the cameras started rolling.

Brown: Right, Sara McDowell is in a car right behind the police SUV. Keyon Lowery, he's in a car right behind her. They're ex-boyfriend and girlfriend, they have kids together. They'd just been in a fight and they're driving to Sara McDowell sister's house. The kids are crying in the backseat of Keyon Lowery's car. And this is the chaotic picture that the defense attorneys are trying to paint, that they couldn't really have been paying attention to what was going on between officers and Manny Ellis because they had so much going on in their own lives.

Aina: Let's listen to a little bit of that exchange.

[Audio clip]

Defense attorney: Would it be, would it be safe to say that you really don't have the details of the event that occurred that evening because you really weren't focused...on the situation?

Eyewitness Sara McDowell: No, that's not true.

Defense attorney: That's not true?

McDowell: No.

[End audio clip]

Aina: And that clip, McDowell is really pushing back and saying no, like, I know what I saw, and I believe and I'm confident in my testimony. And I think that's something that was consistent across the two, Sara McDowell and Keyon Lowery, that even though some of the details may be a little bit fuzzy, they're pretty consistent and confident that Ellis was not the aggressor in that situation. From what they could see, and in their opinion, it was really the officers who were the aggressors.

Brown: And then the last witness we heard from was an outside forensic pathologist from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Roger Mitchell. He reviewed the original autopsy report by the Pierce County Medical Examiner at the time, Dr. Thomas Clark, he came out to Tacoma, he re-examined organs under the microscope, and he came to a slightly different conclusion about Ellis' death. This is how he characterized it:

Forensic pathology expert Dr. Roger Mitchell testifying: So my, my conclusion is, I call his cause of death mechanical asphyxia due to violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement officers. The contributing cause is evidence of aspiration and blood and oral contents due to spit hood placement, methamphetamine toxicity and dilatation of the heart, and manner of death is homicide.

Aina: So that is a very, like, jargon-y and technical description of his conclusion. How do you understand what he just said?

Brown: Yeah, definitely. So Dr. Clark, the Pierce County Medical Examiner, he really zeroed in on the spit hood and how it blocked Ellis from breathing and getting oxygen to his brain. Mitchell is saying the spit hood was a big factor but the proceeding struggle and the weight of officers on Ellis' back while he was hogtied is maybe equally important. He also said if he'd done the autopsy instead of Clark, he would have looked under the skin of Ellis' neck, back arms, legs and face to see if there was more evidence of injury from the police officers.

Aina: So we're going to hear from Dr. Clark about his autopsy report and the way that he came to his conclusions. And we know that there are several other medical experts on the potential witness list. So we're gonna be talking about this issue for a bit. But as far as Mitchell and his conclusion, this seems to really kind of underscore the prosecution's argument that the totality of everything that happened that night, and all of the officer's actions, is what led to Ellis's death.

Brown: Exactly. And so I've spent a lot of time in the courtroom, you've spent a lot more time outside the courtroom trying to pay attention to everything that's going on around this case that's on trial. What's stuck out to you so far?

Aina: Yeah, I think the thing that has really stuck with me as we've been covering this over the past few weeks, has been just the emotional toll that this trial is taking on everyone involved. I've had the opportunity to sit with Monét Carter-Mixon, Ellis' sister through some of these moments.

There's just one scene that I keep thinking about. Monét has seven children, including a newborn. And there was a moment where she was waiting in the hallway to be called in to give her testimony. And as she's waiting to take the stand, she's pumping, because she's still breastfeeding, while all these people are, like, walking by in the hallway. She's got a toddler who is wanting to be entertained while she's out there waiting to testify. And as she goes in to testify, and she's giving her testimony, she has another child who is in school and needs to be picked up. And so people are kind of organizing and trying to figure out who is going to pick up her child from school.

It was just a reminder to me that while we're zeroed in on this trial and on all of the proceedings and all the details, you know, life is still going on and people have to manage the rest of their lives outside of the courtroom.

Kendrick (narrating): That was KNKX reporters Mayowa Aina and Jared Brown discussing the first two weeks of testimony in the trial of Tacoma police officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, and Timothy Rankine. Testimony continues today and you can follow our daily coverage and find a link to the livestream of the trial at knkx.org/tpdtrial.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing maina@knkx.org.
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.