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Washington governor orders new investigation into in-custody death of man who said 'I can't breathe'

Gov. Jay Inslee said he made the decision after a local prosecutor said she had a conflict of interest in the case.
Image: Vigil In Tacoma, WA After Report Released Local Man Died In Police Custody
A photo of Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody was recently found to be a homicide, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office, is posted near the site of his death during a vigil in Tacoma, Washington on June 3, 2020.David Ryder / Getty Images

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a new investigation Wednesday into the in-custody killing of Manuel Ellis, a black man who was heard saying “I can’t breathe” after he was restrained and handcuffed by officers earlier this year.

In a statement, Inslee said he made the decision about Ellis’ March 3 death after the Pierce County prosecuting attorney, Mary Robnett, said officers from the sheriff’s office were present when Ellis was detained and died.

“She believes she has an irreconcilable conflict that would preclude her office from handling this case,” he said.

The Tacoma Police Department, whose officers detained Ellis, said in a statement Wednesday that it supports Inslee’s decision and will continue to cooperate with investigators.

The investigation comes amid nationwide demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. In cellphone video of his death, Floyd could be heard gasping and saying “I can’t breathe.”

Inslee said it isn’t clear who will investigate Ellis’ death, which occurred while he was walking home. Authorities have said Ellis had been accused of harassing a woman shortly after 11 p.m. Police have said that officers struggled to detain Ellis after he repeatedly struck a patrol car that approached him.

A spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, Ed Troyer, said Ellis picked up an officer “by his vest and slam-dunked him on the ground.”

A lawyer for Ellis’ family, James Bible, said Tuesday that Ellis was walking to a 7-11 for a snack before he died. He said an eyewitness disputed the authorities' account, saying that Ellis was “standing in a friendly pose” when he was “overcome” by police.

“The reality is the matter of Manny Ellis is an echo of so many other cases that we've seen around the nation from New York to Minnesota to Texas to Tacoma, Washington,” he said.

A video that claims to capture Ellis being detained appears to show two officers punching a man, then slamming him to the ground. The footage, which was shot by an anonymous bystander and posted to social media by the Tacoma Action Collective, contains profanity and images that viewers might find disturbing. NBC News does not know what occurred before the events in the video.

Ellis could be heard saying “I can’t breathe” on police scanner traffic after he was handcuffed at an intersection south of downtown Tacoma, NBC affiliate KING reported.

Ellis lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at the scene. Last week, the Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled that his death was a homicide. His cause of death was listed as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.

The report said that methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, commonly known as an enlarged heart, contributed to his death.

After the report’s release, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards called for the firing of the officers involved — Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, Masyih Ford and Timothy Rankine. They have been placed on administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

In a statement, the officers’ union accused Woodwards of having “misplaced rage” and passing judgment on the officers with “less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos.”