Five former Memphis Police Department officers pleaded not guilty Friday at their arraignment on criminal charges connected to the January death of Tyre Nichols, whose brutal beating after a police traffic stop was seen on video.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr. each face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Second-degree murder in Tennessee is considered a Class A felony punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison.
The former officers are due back in court on May 1. Their attorneys entered not guilty pleas on their behalf. Members of Nichols’ family sat in the rear of the courtroom with their attorney Ben Crump.
After the pleas in Shelby County Criminal Court, Judge James Jones urged both sides to be patient as the case may take some time.
“We understand that there may be some high emotions in this case, but we ask that you continue to be patient with us,” Jones said. “Everyone involved wants this case to be concluded as quickly as possible. But it’s important for you all to understand that the state of Tennessee, as well as each one of these defendants, have an absolute right to a fair trial. And I will not allow any behavior that could jeopardize that right.”
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was repeatedly punched and kicked by the officers charged following a traffic stop and brief pursuit on foot on January 7. Nichols was hospitalized after the beating and died three days later. The high-profile case is the latest in a series of deaths that have brought national attention to police use of force against people of color, particularly Black Americans.
Bean’s lawyer, John Keith Perry, said after the arraignment his client was “doing his job” at the time of the fatal encounter and that he has seen no information indicating a murder was committed.
Perry said Bean told Nichols “to sit up” so that he could “get air.”
Asked if Bean had any regrets, the attorney said: “I think at this point, being a Memphis police officer on that night, because he wouldn’t have been called to the job.”
Blake Ballin, the attorney for Mills, said the public should be patient and cautious in judging his client.
“Let’s not forget that my client is a Black man in a courtroom in America, which is a country where Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of White people,” he said.
“Much has been said about the ways that the system has failed Mr. Nichols. I will work tirelessly to make sure that the system does not fail Mr. Mills and that a fair outcome is achieved.”
Ballin added, “Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills.”
The ‘process of justice’ begins
Outside court, Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, said it was “a glorious day” signaling the “beginning of the process” toward justice for his son’s death.
RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, said she feels “numb” and vowed to attend every proceeding involving the officers “until we get justice for my son.” She said the five officers – who appeared in court wearing black face masks – “didn’t even have the courage to look at me in my face.”
“I’m really waiting for somebody to wake me up,” she said. “But I also know that it’s not going to happen… I know my son is gone. I know I’ll never see him again. But we have to start this process of justice right now. And I want each and every one of those police officers to be able to look me in the face. They haven’t done that yet.”
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told CNN one challenge for prosecutors will be proving the defendants knowingly killed Nichols – which under state law means “they acted in such a way that they were reasonably certain that their actions could cause death.”
Mulroy said his office is still looking into “people who showed up after the beating had concluded” and were “involved directly or indirectly in the death.”
“We’re going to do what we can as quickly as I can — but thoroughly — and we’ll be making decisions about charges regarding all of those people and in the time ahead,” he said.
The five officers, who are also Black, were fired following an internal investigation and were indicted on January 26.
The following day, body camera videos and surveillance footage from the arrest were released, demonstrating the severity of the beating to the public and drawing widespread condemnation from residents and police officials alike. Protesters marched and vigils were held in Memphis and other major cities across the US, decrying the latest example of police brutality seen on video and calling for police reform.
The five charged officers were part of the department’s SCORPION unit, which was launched in 2021 to take on a rise in violent crime in Memphis. Shortly after the video footage of Nichols’ arrest was released, Memphis police announced the unit would be permanently deactivated as a sign the department was taking “proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted,” according to a January 28 statement.
Mulroy said his office has begun a review of prior cases involving the former SCORPION unit as well as the officers involved in Nichols’ death. As many as 100 cases are under review, including 75 involving the five officers who were charged criminally, he said.
“We’ll also take a look at any other case that a defense attorney will bring to us if they have some … credible reason for thinking that the case might be suspect,” said Mulroy, adding that “manpower issues” are a concern in the “time-consuming process.”
Mulroy said there is “a cause for concern about an overall culture” involving law enforcement and noted the “need for a broader conversation about police reform” in Memphis and across the country.
Sixth officer fired, others face discipline
As the cases against the five officers move forward, fallout from the violent arrest continues for other members of law enforcement and first responders who were on the scene.
Two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies who were at the scene of the arrest were found to have violated department policies and suspended for five days each without pay, according to a sheriff’s office statement obtained by CNN affiliate WHBQ.
Three Memphis Fire Department personnel were fired for their failure to promptly render emergency care to Nichols after the arrest, according to the fire department. In a letter to the Memphis City Council, Thomas Malone, president of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, defended their actions, saying they “were not given adequate information upon dispatch or upon arrival on the scene.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Shimon Prokupecz, Melissa Alonso, Nick Valencia, Amanda Watts, Sharif Paget and Chuck Johnston contributed to this report.