TACOMA, Wash. — Two Tacoma police officers charged with second-degree murder in the death of Manuel Ellis were given lower bail amounts than the vast majority of other defendants charged with the same crime in Pierce County since 2017, court records show.
Officials say that is likely because the officers do not have criminal backgrounds, have significant ties to the community and are unlikely to intimidate witnesses, all factors weighed by judges when assigning bail.
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Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the March 3, 2020, death of Ellis. Officer Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three posted bond and were released hours after their May 28 arraignment, when bail for each was set at $100,000.
Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died of oxygen deprivation while being restrained by police at 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue South. Three separate agencies investigated the death, which garnered national attention after video surfaced of Ellis saying, “Can’t breathe, sir, can’t breath,” while being held down.
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On May 27, the Attorney General’s Office filed criminal charges against Burbank, Collins and Rankine. Burbank and Collins tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, used a neck restraint and used a Taser on him three times, “all without justification for these uses of force,” according to charging papers.
Rankine pinned Ellis down for six to nine minutes after he stopped moving and ignored his pleas for air, records say. All three officers failed to summon medical aid for Ellis in a timely manner, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
The union representing rank-and-file Tacoma police issued a statement calling the charges a political witch hunt and saying the officers acted in accordance with policy and the law.
“Some people may say $100,000 was too high, and some people may say $100,000 was too low,” said Michael Stewart, a Tacoma defense attorney who is not involved in the case. “That tells you more about the perspective of the person who is looking at that.”
$1 MILLION BAIL SOUGHT BY PROSECUTOR
Special Assistant Attorney General Patty Eakes, who is prosecuting the case, requested $1 million bail for each officer at their arraignments May 28. Eakes gave virtually the same reasoning for each defendant.
“Given the severity of the charges and the potential penalty he is facing, we believe $1 million bail is appropriate,” she told Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Schwartz about Burbank. “In addition, we understand it is consistent with charges that are filed of this nature in Pierce County, so we’re seeking bail in that amount.”
The judge dismissed her second reason, saying in court that it was too general and not specific to the defendants.
Defense attorneys took issue with Eakes’ assertion.
Wayne Fricke, representing Burbank, called $1 million bail “exorbitant.” Bryan Hershman, representing Rankine, said her claim that $1 million is consistent with similar charges in Pierce County was “wrong. That’s patently false.”
Schwartz assigned $100,000 bail to each officer, saying that the seriousness of the charges warranted some bail but that factors like the officers’ lack of criminal record, ties to the community, lack of evidence that they are flight risks and no indication that they appear to be dangerous or inclined to interfere with the case played a role.
Stewart, the defense attorney, said Schwartz’s judgment is impeccable.
“These are individuals without a criminal history and with ties to the community. When you look at what the rule says with conditions of release, it falls squarely on the side of being able to post a reasonable bail,” Stewart said. “What’s not lost on anyone is that they were performing their official duties at the time of this incident.”
Pierce County court data dating back to 2017 shows Eakes was not wrong about previous bail for similar charges.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SHOW
The News Tribune looked at bail amounts for every person charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in Pierce County since 2017.
In the last 4-1/2 years, 85 people were charged with second-degree murder and 13 with first-degree manslaughter.
Bail was unable to be determined in two of the second-degree murder cases and three of the first-degree manslaughter cases.
Of the remaining cases, 88 percent of people charged with second-degree murder in Pierce County since 2017 had bail set at $1 million or higher. The highest bail for a second-degree murder charge was $5 million; the lowest was $50,000.
Fifty-eight percent (48) of those charged with second-degree murder received $1 million bail, while 30 percent (25) of them had more than $1 million bail. One of the defendants included in this analysis as having more than $1 million bail was not granted bail at all. Ten of those charged with second-degree murder had bail set below $1 million, records show.
Of the 83 people charged with second-degree murder whose bail was available for review, two defendants received lower bail than Burbank and Collins. Another two were given $100,000 bail.
The lowest bail amount was given to Taldon Maddock, a 27-year-old man charged last year in the fatal stabbing of a man over the sale of prescription drugs. Maddock claimed self-defense. Commissioner Craig Adams set his bail at $50,000. He was released for electronic home monitoring four days later but after leaving his home twice without permission, returned to jail in July.
Michael John Red Cloud, 31, was given the second lowest bail in that time frame at $75,000. He was charged in December for his role in the death of Patrick Shenaurlt at a homeless encampment in Tacoma. He is accused of using a large piece of lumber to hit occupied tents, giving one woman a concussion and breaking another woman’s arm. His co-defendant is believed to have fatally shot Shenaurlt when he tried to protect injured women inside one of the tents. Red Cloud posted bail two days later and was released.
The two who received $100,000 bail like the officers in the Ellis case were Thomas Andrew Pearson, Red Cloud’s co-defendant, and Terry Chissus, a 76-year-old man who fatally shot his stepson when the stepson allegedly threatened his mother and rushed at her.
Bail for first-degree manslaughter ranged quite a bit, from $25,000 to $1 million.
There are no documents in the court files associated with their charges indicating whether the 98 defendants charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter since 2017 have a criminal history or are unlikely to return to court. Like Burbank and Collins, 51 of those defendants were charged with more than one crime.
HOW BAIL IS SET
Bail is typically set at an arraignment or bail hearing within days of the arrest. Prosecutors ask the court for a particular amount, and defense attorneys weigh in.
“When a prosecutor makes a bail recommendation, the primary considerations are protecting public safety and ensuring the defendant will appear at future court dates,” said Adam Faber, spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
The decision rests with the judge.
Judges use their discretion and are guided by Criminal Rule 3.2, which spells out what a court may consider in setting pretrial release conditions.
The rule essentially says all defendants except those charged with a capital offense should be released on their personal recognizance unless they meet one of several factors. Those factors include the likelihood of the defendant to return for future court hearings and whether they are likely to commit a violent crime or intimidate witnesses.
Judge Philip K. Sorensen, the presiding criminal judge in Pierce County Superior Court, said there is no average bail for any particular crime. Each case and each defendant is unique.
“The starting point is release in virtually every case unless there are these things in play,” Sorensen said.
Defendants who have a criminal record or history of disobeying court orders, like violating a protection order or failing to appear in court, are likely to get a higher bail. Defendants who have no criminal history and significant ties to the community are likely to receive lower bail amounts.
“Then, of course, you have discretion. There’s zero chance that somebody looking at the case today versus next week versus next year would come up with the same answer,” Sorensen said. “Everybody can look at it differently, but everybody has to apply criminal rule 3.2. That’s the one constant.”
This story was originally posted by The Tacoma News Tribune.
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