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 his mother saying afterward that none of them would look her in the eye in court.
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 on Nichols, who died in a hospital three days later. His beating was caught on video.
At a news conference after the hearing, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said that the officers didn’t have the courage to look her in the eye, but that “they’re going to see me at every court date — every one — until we get justice for my son.”
“I feel very numb right now,” Wells said. “And I’m waiting for this nightmare basically that I’m going through right now, I’m waiting for somebody to wake me up. I know that’s not going to happen.”
The officers pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. They are all out on bond. Their next hearing was scheduled for May 1.
The Nichols case 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.
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.”
Bean’s attorney, John Keith Perry, spoke with reporters afterward, saying Bean was doing his job at that time and “never touched” Nichols. That assertion is contradicted by video footage.
Protester Casio Montez talked over Perry, saying Nichols’ death was murder: “You represent a murderer, bro.”
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.
Ballin also said the nation’s grief over Nichols’ death “absolutely should be channeled into demanding change in the way that we police our communities.”
“It’s also vital that we extend these demands to the way that we treat minorities and people of lower incomes in our criminal justice system,” Ballin said. “Let’s not forget that my client is a Black man in a courtroom in America.”
Lawyers for Martin and Smith did not immediately respond to attempts for comment. Haley’s lawyer declined to comment in an email.
Assistant District Attorney Paul Hagerman told reporters that “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.”
Nichols’ mother and stepfather, Rodney Wells, were in court along with their lawyer, civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
“This is a glorious day,” Rodney Wells said at the post-hearing news conference. “This is the beginning of the process.”
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.