5 former Memphis police officers plead not guilty to murder charges in Tyre Nichols' death

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty to murder charges and other crimes in connection to the beating of Tyre Nichols after an alleged traffic stop in their first court appearance Friday.

Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr. were each indicted on one count of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, official oppression and two counts of official misconduct.

Body camera and pole-mounted surveillance footage showed them aggressively pulling Nichols, 29, from his car and beating him on Jan. 7. Nichols, a FedEx employee, father and skateboarder, died three days later.

The former officers each face 15 to 60 years in prison if convicted on second-degree murder charges. They are expected to return to court on May 1.

Judge James Jones Jr. acknowledged that the case “may 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,” he said.

Family, attorneys speak after arraignment

Nichols' parents RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells attended the hearing, along with attorney Ben Crump. Crump spoke briefly about the need for policy reform in addition to accountability for the former officers.

RowVaughn Wells said her family will be at every court date to face the officers charged in her son's death. She described, sometimes through tears, the "nightmare" her life has become.

"I feel very numb," she told reporters. "I keep waiting for someone, someone to wake me up, but I know that's not going to happen."

Lead prosecutor: Court needs to do 'what's right'

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."

"Memphis, and the whole world, need to see that what's right is done in this case," Hagerman said.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said his office's investigation has created an opportunity to talk about broader police reform.

Defense attorney: Officer 'was doing his job'

Bean's defense attorney, John Keith Perry, said the former officer never hit Nichols and that "he was doing his job."

"There should be justice for Tyre Nichols," he said. "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."

Blake Ballin, who is representing Mills, expressed a similar sentiment to reporters saying, "Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills."

Others under investigation in Nichols' death

Two Shelby County Sheriff's deputies seen on body camera footage at the traffic stop have been suspended without pay, but are not expected to face any charges, according to a Wednesday statement from the sheriff's office.

Two other Memphis police officers, including Preston Hemphill, were relieved of duty but have not been criminally charged. Seven more Memphis police employees – who have not been identified – are under investigation in relation to Nichols' death, city attorney Jennifer Sink said last week.

Three Memphis Fire Department employees were fired for not treating Nichols, but have not been charged with a crime.

“If you were an officer or first responder and you sat there and watched this young man die and you did nothing to help resuscitate him, you did nothing to give him aid, you’re just as culpable as the people who beat him down and killed him,” NAACP Memphis Branch President Van Turner said after video of the stop was released.

Former officers also face federal investigation

The United States Attorney's Office, FBI Memphis Field Office and Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division launched a federal investigation into possible civil rights violations by the former officers.

These kinds of charges are rare. On average, on-duty law enforcement officers were charged with federal civil rights violations 41 times per year over the past two decades, according to data analyzed by Syracuse University. 

What happened during the traffic stop?

Haley was the first officer to pull Nichols from the car. Martin III arrived shortly after and began to restrain Nichols, according to police documents obtained last week by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Nichols fled and Smith, Bean and Mills, Jr., were the first three officers to catch up with him. They restrained Nichols, then Haley arrived and began kicking him. Bean and Smith held Nichols' arms while Mills, Jr., pepper sprayed and then hit Nichols with a baton.

After the beating, Haley took photos of Nichols with his cellphone and sent them to multiple people, according to police documents.

Who are the former officers charged in Nichols' death?

The former officers, all of whom are Black, were part of a crime unit called the SCORPION Unit, which was disbanded after Nichols' death.

Bean, 24, and Haley, 30, were hired by the Memphis Police Department in August 2020. In 2016, Haley was accused of punching an inmate in the face during a random search while working as a Shelby County Corrections officer in a federal lawsuit. The suit was later dismissed.

Mills, 32, was hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2017. His attorney Blake Ballin told reporters he was previously a jailer in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Martin, 30, and Smith, 28, were hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2018.

This combo of booking images provided by the Shelby County Sheriff's Office shows, from top row from left, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, bottom row from left, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith. The five former Memphis police officers have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the arrest and death of Tyre Nichols, a Black motorist who died three days after a confrontation with the officers during a traffic stop, records showed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

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Contributing: The Associated Press; Micaela A Watts, Katherine Burgess, Laura Testino and Josh Keefe, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Contact Breaking News Reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg at nyanceybra@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tyre Nichols' death: 5 former Memphis police officers plead not guilty