Three cases of police brutality go on trial: Elijah McClain, Manny Ellis, and Tony Timpa

Colorado: Elijah McClain

Over four years ago, three Aurora Police officers violently detained 23-year-old Elijah McClain while out for a walk, allegedly believing the young Black man to be a “suspicious” person:

One officer approached Mr. McClain, who was listening to music, and told him to stop walking. Mr. McClain stopped after several commands but said he had a right to continue toward home.

According to the camera footage, the officer responded, saying he had a right to stop Mr. McClain for looking suspicious, and grabbed him by the arms. As another officer approached, Mr. McClain can be heard saying: “I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. Leave me alone.”

Though Mr. McClain had not committed a crime, officers immediately restrained him, telling him to stop resisting when he put his arms up to his chest and to “stop tensing up.” The footage shows Mr. McClain pleading with the officers to let go of him, and trying to get out of their grip.

The officers eventually brought him to the ground, claiming he had reached for one of their guns while they were pinning him against a wall to handcuff him. The body camera footage does not show this, officers said, because their cameras had fallen off into the grass.

One of the officers, Nathan Woodyard, twice applied a chokehold to McClain after he was already in handcuffs, causing him to lose consciousness.

…while he was detained, Mr. McClain was clearly in distress. After officers restrained him on the ground, he vomited several times, for which he apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that, I can’t breathe correctly.”

An officer said in the body camera footage that officers had “put him out” with a carotid hold twice, “at least once successfully,” meaning Mr. McClain had lost consciousness.

When paramedics arrived, officers told them that McClain was “acting crazy” and had “incredible, crazy strength.” The paramedics gave him what was described as a “therapeutic” dose of ketamine—but in reality was about 150-170 mg too much for McClain’s weight. McClain was pronounced brain dead and died three days later.

After two years of delay and internal attempts to shield the officers from consequences, a grand jury ultimately indicted three officers—Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema—and two paramedics—Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec—on 32 total counts of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

The trial of two officers, Rosenblatt and Roedema, began last week. During opening arguments, their defense team argued that officers had reason to stop McClain because he was acting suspiciously in a high-crime area. According to the defense, the officers acted appropriately and are not to blame for McClain’s death—the fault actually lies with the paramedics who gave him ketamine, they argued.

However, a pulmonologist testified that the chokeholds used by officers could have caused McClain’s death absent the ketamine:

Officers put him in two carotid holds, which commonly cause people to eventually vomit if they lose consciousness and then regain it. McClain started vomiting and he threw up into his mask. Officers didn’t remove it until a few minutes later.

“It was a large amount,” he said, noting he inspected that mask. “In my medical opinion, certainty … this is a very high-risk situation. The more you vomit, the more risk of aspiration.”

Beuther said McClain was aspirating, or breathing vomit into his lungs, during that time. Prosecutors played the body camera footage at a loud volume to hear McClain’s respiratory struggle and breathing and sickness throughout.

The trial will continue next week.

Washington: Manuel Ellis

Manuel Ellis was walking home from a convenience store just before midnight in March 2020 when he encountered Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins. The story, according to police, was that Ellis abruptly attacked them while they were sitting in their car:

Collins, who was driving the patrol SUV, called out to Ellis and asked him why he was in the road.

Both officers said Ellis jogged over to their patrol car and was sweating profusely, something they found unusual since it was cold outside; the temperature was 41 degrees…After calling out to Ellis, Collins told him to wait on the sidewalk and they would help. Instead, the officers say Ellis walked to the passenger door and threatened to punch Burbank in the face.

Burbank quickly rolled his window up just before Ellis punched the window up to three times, records say. Ellis reached for the door handle. Burbank locked it. That’s when police say Ellis turned towards Collins, who had gotten out of the patrol car, and faced him in a “fighting stance” with clenched fists.

“As soon as I realized that he had focused on Officer Collins and was probably about to attack him or start fighting him, I used my door to actually door check him and hit him with the door to draw his attention away from Officer Collins and kind of divert him away from that,” Burbank told investigators.

There is no body camera footage of the incident because Tacoma police did not wear cameras at the time. Instead, most of what we know about the confrontation comes from eyewitness accounts, cell phone video, and security camera video—and all of these sources contradict the officers’ version of events. According to witnesses interviewed by the Washington Attorney’s General office, Ellis had “a peaceful, apparently respectful conversation” with the officers in their car, “with no signs of aggression from Ellis.” As Ellis turned to walk away, witnesses said Burbank “abruptly swung open the passenger door of the car, striking Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees.” Both officers then got out of the car and attacked him:

The video from S.M., the woman sitting in her car behind COLLINS and BURBANK, 26 starts 46 seconds after 11:21 PM. When it begins, BURBANK can be seen wrapping his arms around Ellis, lifting him into the air, and driving him down into the pavement, striking at him 2 with one of his fists as he does so. Ellis can then be seen curling his legs in towards his body, as BURBANK backs away from him. The bag from the 7-11 that Ellis had been carrying just a few seconds earlier can be seen drifting away, pushed by that night’s gusty winds. COLLINS then moves in towards Ellis and brings his weight down onto him. With Ellis underneath him, COLLINS begins striking Ellis’s head with his fist. Meanwhile, BURBANK draws his taser gun and walks close in towards Ellis. COLLINS can be seen on S.M.’s video striking Ellis’s head four times, with Ellis screaming after each strike…

At this point-56 seconds after 11:21 PM—the pizza delivery driver (S.C.)’s phone begins recording. That video begins by showing COLLINS, now behind Ellis, wrapping his arm around the front of Ellis’s neck, as BURBANK takes aim with his taser gun. COLLINS then locks his hands together while squeezing the arm around Ellis’s neck, applying what is called a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” or “LVNR.”

The witnesses all said that Ellis did not defend himself as officers repeatedly tased and choked him. After a third officer, Timothy Rankine, arrived on scene, they hogtied Ellis, applied their full body weight on his back, and placed a spit hood on his head. All three officers ignored obvious signs that Ellis was suffocating:

Around this time, 21 seconds after 11:25 PM, another officer on the scene, Sgt. Michael Lim, took to his radio to tell responding officers that they could slow their approach to the scene. As Sgt. Lim did so, Ellis can be heard in the background, speaking his last known words, the same desperate plea he had been repeating throughout the attack: “Can’t breathe.” “Can’t breathe.”

“Once that hobble was on he went quiet, he did not move,” recalled Lt. Anthony Messineo, a 19-year veteran with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department who responded to the scene and was interviewed later that night. Ellis then began to “snore”—”[t]hat agonal breathing,” Lt. Messineo said later. They sounded to him like a person’s last breaths, explaining that when “someone is dying and they have the agonal breathing, their last breaths…. That’s what I heard.”

Almost 10 minutes later, still hogtied and under the weight of Officer Rankine, EMTs arrived. Attempts to resuscitate Ellis were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The initial investigation into Ellis’ death was handled by the Pierce County Sheriff’s department, which accepted the officers’ statements as fact and appeared to help cover up what actually happened. Gov. Jay Inslee eventually ordered the Washington State Patrol to launch a new investigation into Ellis’ death. Meanwhile, the Tacoma police officers refused to be interviewed or questioned by State Patrol investigators and remained on duty until June 2020, when they were placed on paid administrative leave. They continue to receive their salaries to this day.

In May 2021, AG Bob Ferguson charged officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with second-degree murder, and charged officer Timothy Rankine with first-degree manslaughter. Jury selection began last week, with opening statements slated to start October 2.

Texas: Tony Timpa

A civil trial over the death of Tony Timpa under the knee of a Dallas police officer finally concluded this week, over 7 years since the initial encounter.

Timpa, 32, called 911 for assistance during a mental health episode. He informed the dispatcher that he was experiencing “a lot of anxiety,” was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and hadn’t taken his medication. Supervising Police Sergeant Kevin Mansell and Officers Dustin Dillard, Danny Vasquez, and Domingo Rivera arrived on scene to find Timpa already handcuffed by two private security guards.

Timpa was yelling, “help me” and “you’re going to kill me!” while rolling back and forth on the grass by the side of the road. Dillard forced Timpa onto his stomach and pressed a knee on Timpa’s upper back in the prone restraint position for over fourteen minutes. “In his protective vest and duty belt, Dillard weighed approximately 190 pounds,” the courts noted.

About 10 minutes into the restraint, Timpa started to show signs of losing consciousness:

He continued to cry out “Help me!” but his voice weakened and slurred. Much of what he said was too muffled to be comprehensible. Forty-five seconds later, he suddenly stilled and was quiet except for a few moans. Then, he fell limp and nonresponsive for the final three-and-a-half minutes of the restraint.

The officers laughed, mocking how he struggled on the ground (body cam footage). When Timpa stopped responding, the officers assumed he was asleep, making jokes about waking him up for school. Shortly after the officers placed Timpa on an ambulance gurney, the paramedics determined he was dead.

A Dallas grand jury indicted Vasquez, Mansell, and Dillard on misdemeanor deadly conduct charges in 2017, finding that “the officers engaged in reckless conduct that placed Mr. Timpa in imminent danger of serious bodily injury.” However, two years later, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot dismissed the charges after three medical examiners refused to testify that police officers caused Timpa’s death. Vasquez and Dillard remain on the force to this day.

Timpa’s mother sued the officers and the city of Dallas for violating Timpa’s Fourth Amendment rights. District Judge David Godbey, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because—in his opinion—there was no clearly established case law that the prone restraint position for an extended period of time violated the Constitution. The 5th Circuit reversed, writing that “the state of the law in August 2016 clearly established that an officer engages in an objectively unreasonable application of force by continuing to kneel on the back of an individual who has been subdued.” The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, clearing the way for the officers to go on civil trial.

During the trial last week, the defense argued that Timpa led a secret life of drug and alcohol abuse that caused his death, relying on testimony from the chief medical examiner of Dallas County. Conversely, the plaintiffs had their own witness—pulmonologist Martin Tobin—testify that Timpa died from positional asphyxia caused by the prone restraint.

The Timpas’ attorneys have said Timpa died of positional asphyxia — when people can’t breathe because of their position. Dr. Martin Tobin, a world-renowned pulmonologist, testified last week that body-camera footage shows Timpa was “pancaked” between the officers’ hands and knees and the hard ground, which caused “compressive asphyxia.” …Timpa’s breastbone couldn’t expand, and his diaphragm was pushed against the hard ground, so he couldn’t get oxygen, Tobin said. He squirmed to try to move into a recovery position to breathe, but the officers’ force prevented it, he said.

After 6.5 hours of deliberations, the jury awarded Timpa’s son $1 million in damages but returned nothing for his mom or estate. The panel found that Dillard and Vasquez violated Timpa’s constitutional rights but decided that the two deserve qualified immunity—while their actions were unlawful, a reasonable officer couldn’t have been expected to know as much. Mansell was cleared of all wrongdoing. An additional officer on scene, Raymond Dominguez, was also found to have violated Timpa’s rights but, unlike Dillard and Vasquez, was not protected by qualified immunity.

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