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‘Excited delirium’ at center of dispute over Manuel Ellis’ cause of death in Tacoma officers’ trial

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TACOMA — A medic from the Tacoma Fire Department who responded to the scene on the night Manuel Ellis died testified Tuesday afternoon in the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged in Ellis’ death that he disagrees with the cause of death declared by a medical examiner.

“My belief is that this was an excited delirium event,” Lt. Nicholas Wilson testified.

Excited delirium is a term embraced by law enforcement to describe subjects acting erratically, usually suspected of using drugs, who have been described to possess superhuman strength and immunity to physical pain. It’s a controversial term that has served as a catchall to explain deaths in police custody in lieu of other explanations.

Major medical and psychiatric associations have rejected excited delirium as invalid, and the state of California now refuses to recognize it as an explanation for deaths.

Ellis, 33, died March 3, 2020, after repeatedly telling police he couldn’t breathe while they applied force. The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from physical restraint. Lawyers for the officers contend that the high level of methamphetamine found in Ellis’ system, combined with a heart condition, killed Ellis.

Officers Matthew Collins, 40, Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38, and Timothy Rankine, 34, are charged with first-degree manslaughter. Collins and Burbank, the first to encounter Ellis, face additional charges of second-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges, are free on bail and remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department on paid leave.

Collins and Burbank told detectives that Ellis initiated the aggression when they contacted him after seeing Ellis possibly trying to enter a car as it passed through an intersection. Four eyewitnesses have testified that the officers were the aggressors and Ellis did nothing to provoke them.

Wilson testified that he arrived at the intersection where police had subdued Ellis to find Ellis lying on his back or side with the consciousness level “of a rock.” At least one officer was holding Ellis from behind, and he was handcuffed with a strap looping the cuffs to his ankles.

Tacoma police officers at the scene told Wilson that Ellis had been acting aggressively and appeared to be experiencing excited delirium, Wilson testified. He said medics give great weight to what police tell them at scenes they respond to, and that night was no exception. Wilson denied personally knowing any of the officers on trial, but he acknowledged the “close working relationship” that exists between Tacoma police and Tacoma fire personnel. “They protect us,” he said.

Wilson said he recognized on sight that Ellis was in severe respiratory distress. “[Police] expressed some concern for safety,” Wilson testified. “We assured them that was no longer an issue, and we began to render care.” Soon, Ellis lapsed into cardiac arrest.

Medics used an oxygen-rich ventilator, tried CPR with the help of police, tried a defibrillator and administered lifesaving pharmaceuticals but were unable to save Ellis.

While major medical organizations reject the concept of excited delirium, Pierce County and Tacoma’s government still embrace it.

“It’s in our texts,” Wilson said. “It’s in our training. It’s in our protocol in the county.”

Wilson testified he’s seen excited delirium firsthand.

“I have seen excited delirium in the past,” said Wilson, who has 20 years experience as a medic. “These acute, agitated states are not uncommon, with the amount of drug use individuals are consuming now, and they don’t know what they’re consuming. We see people [overdose] at work every day now.”

Under questioning from Special Prosecutor Patty Eakes, Wilson said the statements from police on scene were valuable and informed his opinion that Ellis died from a heart attack caused by excited delirium. Without the officers’ account, Wilson said he would be providing medical intervention with “incomplete information.”

However, Wilson testified that none of the law enforcement personnel on scene ever informed him that multiple officers had sat and pressed on Ellis’ back during the struggle.

As Eakes pressed further, Wilson acknowledged that determining causes of death is not part of his job.

Last week, Dr. Roger Mitchell, former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., testified that he agreed with ex-Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark’s ruling that Ellis died by homicide from oxygen deprivation caused by physical restraint.

Mitchell, a certified pathologist whose expertise is in determining causes of death, explained why professional medical organizations reject the existence of excited delirium.

Mitchell said deaths ascribed to excited delirium often involve other factors, such as restraint, that are overlooked.

Tuesday’s final witness was Steven Mell, a forensic investigator for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, who photographed the scene where Ellis died. Testimony resumes Wednesday with Mell on the stand.

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