Jury may not hear cops’ admissions in Tyre Nichols’ beating

  • Print
Listen to this story

Subscriber Benefit

As a subscriber you can listen to articles at work, in the car, or while you work out. Subscribe Now
This audio file is brought to you by
Loading audio file, please wait.
  • 0.25
  • 0.50
  • 0.75
  • 1.00
  • 1.25
  • 1.50
  • 1.75
  • 2.00
IL file photo

It was a stunning revelation: One of the officers involved in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols took a cellphone photo of the bloodied and handcuffed man and shared it with five other people.

The disclosure was part of the Memphis Police Department’s request to the state that the five former officers charged with murder in Nichols’ death be decertified. But the officer’s statement about sharing the photo will likely never be seen by a jury.

So-called “Garrity statements” — or disclosures made by police officers during internal investigations under the threat of termination if they stay silent — have been viewed by courts as compelled and therefore cannot be used in criminal court.

Six officers already have been fired and one more has been relieved of duty after Nichols was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation and beaten by police. Six others could receive administrative discipline, officials disclosed, without providing any details. Prosecutors say the Jan. 7 arrest, which was captured on police video cameras, led to Nichols’ death three days later.

Here’s a look at “Garrity statements” and other aspects of internal police investigations into misconduct the public rarely sees:

What is a Garrity statement?

When a police officer is accused of misconduct, internal police investigators who are trying to figure out what happened often take statements from the accused officers or witnesses. Officers — like everyone — have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and can’t be forced to fess up to potential misconduct just to have those statements later used against them in a criminal case.

“Police officers do not shed their Constitutional rights when they pin on a badge,” said Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who tracks charges and convictions of police officers, and also a former police officer.

If an officer is told they have to answer questions as part of an internal affairs investigation or they could lose their job, courts have viewed those statements as protected or inadmissible in criminal proceedings because the officers were forced to talk.

They are called “Garrity statements” because of a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case titled Garrity v. New Jersey that involved police officers who were brought in for questioning over allegations of traffic ticket fixing. The officers were warned that if they didn’t answer questions they would lose their job. Some of their answers were later used against them in court and they were convicted. The Supreme Court said such statements are involuntary, so they can’t be used in criminal proceedings.

That doesn’t mean that an officer who gives a compelled statement to internal affairs investigators cannot be criminally prosecuted. While those statements would not be part of the criminal case, prosecutors would be able to present other evidence, such as the videos that show the brutal beating. The cellphone photos may also still be seen by jurors if prosecutors can get the information through other means, Stinson said.

“Somebody who received the photo may come forward, or prosecutors may get this information through other sources independent of this material,” Stinson said. “But I think any good defense attorney would raise a Garrity challenge.”

Officials have to be careful to keep the internal affairs and criminal investigations totally separate because it can derail the criminal case if the prosecution is found to have inappropriately used statements protected under Garrity.

“The violation of the Garrity protections can come at a very high cost to a subsequent prosecution,” said Bill Johnson, executive director and general counsel of the National Association of Police Organizations.

But while an officer’s own Garrity statement can’t be used against them in their criminal case, prosecutors can use that officer’s statement to build a case against a fellow officer, Johnson said.

What did the Memphis officers say?

Documents released by the Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission on Tuesday say that officer Officer Demetrius Haley took two photos “while standing in front of the obviously injured subject after he was handcuffed.” Haley admitted in his Garrity statement that he shared a photo in a text message with five people, according to the papers.

Officer Desmond Mills said in his Garrity statement that he struck Nichols three times with a baton and deployed pepper spray twice because “officers were unable to handcuff him,” the documents say. The records say Mills admitted that he didn’t “provide immediate medical aid and walked away and decontaminated” himself “from chemical irritant spray.”

Another officer, Tadarrius Bean, admitted in his compelled statement that he struck the man “with a closed fist two to three times in the face” because he and his partners were “unable to handcuff him,” the documents say.

The officer’s Garrity statements were “not consistent with one another” and “not consistent with the publicly known injuries and death of Mr. Nichols,” the papers say.

How have Garrity statements played a role in other cases?

Former Balch Springs, Texas, police officer Roy Oliver raised concerns about Garrity materials in appealing his murder conviction and 15-year sentence in the 2017 shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards while the teen was leaving a high school party.

Oliver’s attorneys claimed that Garrity materials had been shared with the prosecutor’s office, that all interviews in the days after the case should have been considered exempted under Garrity and the whole case should have been thrown out.

Oliver had given three interviews during the investigation, one to a Balch Springs investigator, a second walk-through interview at the scene initiated by Dallas police investigators who had taken over the criminal investigation of the shooting, and a third filmed interview with a Balch Springs internal investigator.

Both a lower court and an appeals court found that Dallas Police investigators, who conducted a walk-through interview, had clearly identified themselves as investigating the criminal case around the shooting, not an internal affairs issue, when they asked Oliver for the interview. They also noted Oliver had not shown that any testimony had been tainted by Garrity protected materials, which had been siloed off by a prosecutor’s office staffer and not given to prosecutors.

In Utah, prosecutors have seen an increase in officers declining to talk to prosecutors or criminal investigators, meaning they often have to infer from other testimony or camera footage if the officer felt threatened or acted within the law when using fatal force. In one of those cases, the 2018 fatal shooting of 19-year-old Zane James, prosecutors declined to charge Cottonwood Heights officer Casey Davies.

But a federal judge ruled that James’ family can use Davies’ Garrity statements in a civil lawsuit, despite objections from Davies’ attorney that there is no statute of limitations on murder charges and the statements could be used in a criminal case.

The family claims that Davies’ statement directly contradicts the police department’s narrative about their son’s death, specifically that he had crashed his motorcycle when Davies said in his interview that he had rammed the motorcycle with his car after believing James was reaching for a gun.

What about other parts of internal investigations?

Garrity statements aren’t the only aspects of internal affairs investigations that rarely reach the public eye. Police unions are increasingly negotiating time limits on disciplinary histories for officers as part of union contracts, meaning in some places information about a disciplinary record becomes no longer releasable in public information requests as little as two years after the complaint.

Other states keep any disciplinary findings that don’t result in a firing, or in some cases a suspension, from public view.

In most cases, at least the results of internal affairs investigations of officers are supposed to be available to prosecutors and to defense attorneys seeking discovery. But the different rules for public release have meant more mistakes in some departments on what files are sent to those entities as well.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner filed motions in 2021 to hold police department officials in contempt for failing to turn over complete disciplinary histories of officers. In one case, prosecutors noted 16 cases involving a Philadelphia police officer who had been found in internal investigations to have falsified documents. But because the information was not disclosed in answers to requests by prosecutors, they could not disclose it in discovery to defense attorneys.

Police and prosecutors agreed before a court hearing to work toward a settlement.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}