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‘No good answer.’ Trial of Tacoma officers charged in Ellis case delayed past 3-year mark

Dec. 2, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 2, 2022 at 8:45 p.m.

By Jared Brown The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

The trial of the three Tacoma police officers charged in the March 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis has been delayed several months pending a Washington Supreme Court ruling.

The question before the state’s high court is whether a compelled internal affairs statement from an officer who hasn’t been charged should be disclosed to prosecutors.

The new trial date of Sept. 18 pushes verdicts in the prosecutions of officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine beyond the three-year anniversary of when they encountered Ellis, 33, on a Tacoma street corner and, according to a medical examiner ruling, fatally restrained him following a struggle.

Before rescheduling the trial date during a Friday hearing, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff noted the three-year mark of Ellis’ death. In prior hearings, Chuscoff indicated strong feelings against postponing the previous Jan. 30 trial date.

“There are lots of people who have got a stake in this,” the judge said. “Justice requires a decision here as soon as we can fairly do that.”

Collins and Burbank face charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter related to their struggle with Ellis. Rankine, who responded as backup, is charged with first-degree manslaughter.

“We took the Jan. 30 date as gospel,” said Burbank’s attorney Brett Purtzer.

Purtzer, as well as Collins’ attorney, Jared Ausserer, and Rankine’s attorney, Mark Conrad, said they scheduled matters for other clients based on the Jan. 30 date.

“I started stacking up things for when this trial was going to be over,” Conrad said.

Attorneys said they expect the trial to last six to eight weeks.

The delay stems from a spring subpoena filed by the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, for the Tacoma Police Department’s entire internal investigation of the Ellis case. Officers were ordered to cooperate or else face discipline up to termination. The city’s attorneys argued releasing their interviews would undermine cooperation in future internal investigations and cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Garrity that found an officer’s compelled internal statements can’t be used as evidence against them in criminal proceedings.

Chushcoff ruled in favor of prosecutors in July, but upon review of the statements, the judge decided the interview of Armando Farinas, who placed a spit hood on Ellis that reportedly contributed to his death, could open the uncharged officer to criminal prosecution. Prosecutors asked Chushcoff to reconsider the ruling because Farinas is not on trial, then appealed to the state Supreme Court when he declined.

Prosecutors and the city have asked the Supreme Court to decide the case on an expedited timeline and schedule oral arguments in late January or early February, special prosecutor Patty Eakes said. She said prosecutors hope for an oral ruling in the first few months of the year and asked that Chushcoff set a March trial date to “push” state Justices to move quickly.

“There’s no good answer here for me,” said Chuschoff, who thought March was an unrealistic timeline. He said he also worried about attorneys’ calendars filling up if they waited to set a new date.

If a Supreme Court ruling comes back sooner than expected, attorneys could ask to move the trial date up. That type of request is rare and must accommodate several parties’ schedules.

Chuschoff said he hoped, but couldn’t demand, that the attorneys file a joint motion with the Supreme Court asking to give him the authority to make pretrial rulings pending the justices’ decision. Otherwise, the Supreme Court’s intervention leaves him with little authority to keep the case moving, he said.

Farinas and Masyih Ford, who held Ellis’ legs during his restraint, were cleared of policy violations following TPD’s internal investigation.

TPD has not closed its review of the actions of Collins, Burbank and Rankine, who remain on paid leave. Their statements from the internal probe cannot be used against them at trial.

Police Chief Avery Moore, who joined the department in late January, has indicated he won’t make a decision about the continued employment status of Collins, Burbank and Rankine until after their trial. All three officers were added to the Pierce County prosecutor’s list of recurring witnesses with credibility issues last month, which could pose problems for prosecutors if they are called to testify as investigators in other criminal trials.

The next hearing in the prosecution of Collins, Burbank and Rankine is scheduled for Jan. 17.

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