MEMPHIS — The five former officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man pulled over for a traffic stop, pleaded not guilty on Friday to second-degree murder charges a month after police and traffic cameras captured the officers punching, kicking and striking Mr. Nichols with a baton.
The five men — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — also face additional charges, including official misconduct, official oppression and kidnapping. They were formally arraigned on Friday in a brief court proceeding, less than a month after top police officials fired the officers.
The five officers, all of them Black, had been part of a specialized street crime unit called Scorpion, which was formed in late 2021 with a mandate to help bring down rising crime rates. Driving muscle cars and wearing modified police uniforms and plainclothes, officers from the unit pulled over countless motorists for low-level violations, which regularly led to drug and gun seizures. The city’s mayor credited the unit with contributing to a drop in the city’s homicide rate. The unit was disbanded following Mr. Nichols’s death.
On Jan. 7, Mr. Nichols was stopped by Scorpion officers and pulled from his car in what the police initially characterized as a stop for reckless driving. He ran and when officers caught up to him, they began to beat him, according to video footage from the scene. At one point two officers held him up so a third could keep delivering baton blows. Mr. Nichols died in a hospital three days later.
During a brief court hearing on Friday morning, the officers quickly filed in and out of the courtroom as their lawyers entered not guilty pleas on their behalf.They wore masks, and their expressions were largely hidden.
Clockwise from top left, Officers Tadarrius Bean, Justin Smith, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr. and Emmitt Martin III.Credit…Memphis Police Department
“This case may take some time,” James Jones Jr., the criminal court judge, said as he urged the defendants “to be patient.”
The Death of Tyre Nichols
Five Memphis police officers have been charged in the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man, after a traffic stop escalated into a brutal beating.
- Scorpion Unit: The specialized street crime unit — one of several that U.S. cities have assembled to fight a new surge in crime — was disbanded after five of its officers were charged with murder in Mr. Nichols’s death.
- Sending a Photo: After the officers beat Mr. Nichols, one of them took a picture of him, handcuffed and bloodied, and texted it to at least five people, according to documents that detailed the officers’ actions.
- Police Report: An official police report written hours after the beating of Mr. Nichols offered a starkly different account of police violence than what videos had shown.
- A Flawed System?: A Times investigation into the officers accused of killing Mr. Nichols reveals the challenges of preventing police brutality.
In a hallway outside the courtroom after the hearing, a prosecutor in the case conveyed a sense of urgency.
“Memphis, and the whole world, needs to see that what’s right is done in this case, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later,” Paul Hagerman, an assistant district attorney, said.
A defense lawyer for one of the officers told reporters that the officers were entitled to a fair trial. “It must be based on the facts and the law, and not the raw emotions our country is currently experiencing,” said Blake Ballin, who represents Mr. Mills.
A sixth officer has been fired, and others are facing internal departmental discipline as well.
Internal police documents released by the city indicate that officers tried to cover up the beating with false accounts of being in danger. One of the officers, Demetrius Haley, claimed that he had heard his partner tell Mr. Nichols, “Let my gun go!” according to the documents.
“However, video evidence did not support your oral or written statement and your information was deemed untruthful,” the Memphis police’s internal affairs division, known as the Inspectional Services Bureau, concluded in a report dated Jan. 14.
The Nichols family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, noted in a news conference on Friday that on the night of the fatal beating, Mr. Nichols was trying to defuse the situation and communicate with the officers, even as they were shouting at him and threatening him.
Mr. Nichols, 29, was an amateur photographer who often skateboarded in his free time. He worked at FedEx, the city’s biggest employer.
“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Mr. Nichols could be heard saying on video footage of the incident, as officers held him down and were threatening to use a Taser on him. “I am on the ground,” Mr. Nichols told them at one point, as they barked threats and orders.
“While everybody else was escalating it, using excessive force, Tyre was de-escalating, trying to do everything in his power to remain calm,” Mr. Crump said. “That’s who Tyre was.”
Mr. Crump said that Mr. Nichols’s death was the result of an aggressive policing strategy, typified by units like Scorpion that operated mainly in Black neighborhoods.
“The Scorpion unit had a pattern and practice of doing this to Black people in Memphis — that’s it,” he said. “They trample on the constitutional rights and human rights of Black and Brown citizens. They don’t do that in the white communities to white citizens.”
At the same news conference, Mr. Nichols’s mother pledged to be at every court date. She observed that the five officers had been unwilling to even look at her in the courtroom that morning.
“They didn’t even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son,” his mother, RowVaughn Wells, said.
She said she felt numb.
“I’m waiting for this nightmare that I’m going through right now, I’m waiting for someone to wake me up,” she said. “But I also know that’s not going to happen. I know my son is gone, that I’ll never see him again.”
Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane.