Ex-Memphis police officers plead not guilty in Tyre Nichols

Ex-Memphis police officers plead not guilty in Tyre Nichols

Five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Friday morning to criminal charges related to their involvement in the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols.

The former officers — Tadarrius Bean, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, Demetrius Haley and Desmond Mills, Jr. — each face one count of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, official oppression and two counts of official misconduct.

Seated in the second row of the courtroom were RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells, Nichols’ parents. When the former officers walked into the courtroom — each wearing a mask, although few others were — they did not look at the family. Nor did they look at the family as they left the courtroom.

“This case might take some time,” said Shelby County Criminal Court Judge James Jones Jr., as he urged patience from the five former officers, along with the family.

Paul Hagerman, who has spent 21 years at the DA’s office, is leading the prosecution. After the arraignment, he said the charges being levied quickly came from the need to “do the right thing.”

“I think everybody here, everybody in Memphis, and everyone that saw that video knew that a statement had to be made and people needed to step up and do the right thing,” Hagerman said. “Memphis, and the whole world, need to see that what’s right is done in this case. And it needs to happen sooner rather than later.”

Nichols was pulled over in a traffic stop in the evening hours of Jan. 7 for what the Memphis Police Department originally said was reckless driving. In the weeks since Nichols’ death, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said internal investigators could not confirm whether or not he was actually driving recklessly.

In body camera footage, officers could be seen yelling multiple commands at Nichols before pulling him from the car and dragging him to the ground. After being pepper sprayed, Nichols could be seen jumping up and running away.

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As Nichols ran, Memphis police officer Preston Hemphill — who has since been fired, but not charged — could be seen firing his taser at Nichols. Nichols pulled off his jacket and continued running away.

When other officers caught Nichols, less than 100 yards from his mother’s house, they tackled him. In the ensuing minutes, officers kicked, punched and hit Nichols with a baton.

Eventually, he was taken to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition. He died three days later.

Defense attorney John Keith Perry, who is representing Bean in the case, said Bean never hit Nichols and that “he was doing his job.”

“In that particular case, he was doing his job, no more, no less,” Perry said. “[Bean] never struck anybody. He never did anything other than his job…There should be justice for Tyre Nichols. I also stand by the fact that I am going to demand justice for Tadarrius Bean.”

As Perry spoke, local activist Casio Montez could be heard shouting, “That’s murder.” When Perry went on to say, “You hear [Bean’s] voice consistently saying, ‘Sit up, man, so you can get air into your lungs,’ and things like that,” Montez retorted: “We didn’t hear that, man.”

Blake Ballin, who is representing Mills, had a similar sentiment to Perry, telling reporters, “Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills.”

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy — who did not sit in on the court proceedings but did speak to the family beforehand — said his office’s investigation has created an opportunity to talk about broader police reform.

“I think it’s fair to say that, what we’ve learned so far, there is a cause for concern about an overall culture that needs to be revisited,” Mulroy said. “I think it really opens up the need for a broader conversation about police reform, not only here in Memphis and Shelby County, but across the country.”

Following individual remarks from Hagerman and Perry, the Wells family, flanked by Crump and a team of attorneys including NAACP-Memphis president Van Turner, took questions from reporters on the south side of the justice complex. 

Crump spoke briefly about the end goal — policy reform in addition to accountability for the former Memphis police officers. 

He also took the time to publicly push back against some of the more hurtful rumors and conspiracies that have plagued Nichols’ family in the wake of his death. 

“The family is dealing with enough with grieving the death of Tyre Nichols and bravely pursuing justice to then have to deal with all of these salacious rumors,” Crump said. 

RowVaughn Wells, as she’s done multiple time since Nichols’ death, faced questions from media outlets and at times answered through tears. She spoke of the waking nightmare that is now her every day existence. 

“I keep waiting for someone, someone to wake me up. But I know that’s not going to happen, I know my son is gone. I know I’ll never see him again,” RowVaugn Wells said. “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, and they couldn’t even do it today.”

Nichols’ death sparked a number of peaceful protests across the city, the first of which began days after his death. Protests have continued, including the day of and before the officers were arraigned Friday.

The Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope organized a protest Thursday afternoon at the corner of Highland Street and Poplar Avenue that also brought out students and teachers. The activists had gathered to continue their calls for justice and reform in policing.

“Young people are unequivocally fed up,” said Richard Massey, an 18-year-old student at the University of Memphis who has been attending protests and speaking at multiple Memphis City Council meetings. “I’m here today representing a student body that’s genuinely concerned about how Black and brown people have been virtually disenfranchised and immobilized by a legacy of racially discriminatory policing tactics. And I’m also here today, demanding that some level of accountability takes place.”

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For Massey, protesting in the streets has been equally as important as speaking at city hall because it allows him to bridge a gap he said he believes there is between the community and its political representatives,

“Increasingly, it appears to me that these legislators are entirely or almost entirely cognitively dissonant to the issues that impact regular, ordinary people ,” he said. “Being within those two rooms simultaneously, if I can use that metaphor, is ever more important, because it bridges a gap that has become more and more apparent.”

Lucas Finton is a news reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at Lucas.Finton@commercialappeal.com and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.