Five former Memphis police officers on Friday pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges stemming from last month’s beating of Tyre Nichols, a black man whose death three days later stirred outrage and fresh calls for reform.
Police video captured images of the officers beating and kicking Nichols, hitting him with a baton, spraying him with pepper spray and firing a stun gun at him on Jan. 7 following a traffic stop. The case has renewed a national discussion of race relations and police brutality.
The five officers, all of them out on bail, entered their pleas during an arraignment in Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis, where they are formally charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.
“I feel very numb. I am waiting for this nightmare – waiting for someone to wake me up,” RowVaughn Wells, the victim’s mother, dressed in black, said outside the courthouse after the hearing.
“I want each and every one of those officers to look me in the face,” she said. “They didn’t even have the courage to look at me.”
The five officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmit Martin, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith – are black. They have been fired from the police force, and the special unit to which they belonged has been disbanded.
Shelby County Judge James Jones set a May 1 date for the next hearing in the case against the officers, who face a maximum penalty of 60 years in prison if convicted of the murder charge.
“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 during the hearing. “Everyone involved wants this case to be concluded as quickly as possible.”
A sixth officer, who is white, was also fired, as have three Memphis Fire Department emergency medical technicians who arrived after Nichols was beaten. Two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies who responded to the scene were suspended five days without pay.
Nichols – a 29-year-old father, avid skateboarder, and student of photography – attempted to converse with police as they shouted orders and threatened him with violence during last month’s ordeal.
“You guys are really doing a lot right now. I’m just trying to go home,” Nichols said at one point, sitting on the street as police tried to subdue him.
“Stop. I’m not doing anything,” Nichols said, just before breaking free and running.
When police caught up to him, he was beaten while being restrained, clubbed with a baton and kicked while on the ground.
Less than 100 yards from home, he called out for his mother several times.
Officers on the video said Nichols had swerved through traffic dangerously, and one said Nichols attempted to grab his gun during the scrum.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters