Five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Friday to second-degree murder and other charges in the violent arrest and death of Tyre Nichols, with the judge urging patience in a case that could “take some time.”
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith made their first court appearances with their lawyers before a judge in Shelby County Criminal Court. The officers were fired after an internal police investigation into the Jan. 7 arrest of Nichols, who died in a hospital three days later.
The officers pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. They are all out on bond. Their next hearing has been scheduled for May 1.
Addressing the courtroom, Judge James Jones Jr. asked for everyone’s “continued patience” and ”continued civility,” stressing that “this case can 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.”
Blake Ballin, the attorney for Mills, said the process must be “based on the facts and the law, and not the raw emotions that our country is experiencing.” The public should be patient and cautious in judging his client, he said.
“Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills,” Ballin said.
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells, were in court along with their lawyer, civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
The police killing of Nichols is the latest to prompt nationwide protests and renew an intense public discussion about police brutality. Nichols, 29, was Black. All five officers charged in his death also are Black.
Nichols was stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation and was pulled out of his car by officers who used profanity, with at least one brandishing a gun. An officer hit Nichols with a stun gun, but Nichols ran away toward his nearby home, according to video footage released by the city.
Officers who were part of a crime-suppression team known as Scorpion caught up with Nichols and punched him, kicked him and slugged him with a baton as he yelled for his mother.
After the beating, officers stood by and talked with one another as Nichols struggled with his injuries on the ground, video showed. One officer took photos of Nichols as he was propped up against an unmarked police car, video and records showed.
Nichols was taken to a hospital in an ambulance that left the site of the beating 27 minutes after emergency medical technicians arrived, authorities said.
Police said Nichols had been suspected of reckless driving, but no verified evidence of a traffic violation has emerged in public documents or in video footage. Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said she has seen no evidence justifying the stop or the officers’ response. She disbanded the Scorpion unit, which she created in November 2021, after Nichols’ death.
One other white officer who was involved in the initial traffic stop has been fired. An additional officer who has not been identified has been suspended.
Three Memphis Fire Department employees who were present at the site of the arrest have been fired. Two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies who also were there have been suspended without pay.
Nichols’ family, their lawyers, community leaders and activists have called for changes within the Memphis Police Department on issues related to traffic stops, use of force, transparency and other policies.
Some of the relatives and lawyers have praised Davis and the department for the swiftness of their response and said it should be the standard for other investigations into police brutality.