Five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Friday (Feb. 17) to the second-degree murder of Tyre Nichols, who was viciously beaten to death in January after a police traffic stop.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith appeared in court for their arraignment, along with their attorneys who entered the not guilty pleas on their behalf, CBS News reported.
Shocking police bodycam video shows several officers pulling Nichols, 29, from his vehicle during a Jan. 7 traffic stop for alleged reckless driving and brutally beating him for no apparent reason. Nichols, the father of a 4-year-old son, died three days later in a hospital. According to authorities, the traffic stop led to a “confrontation” and Nichols fled the scene on foot as he was pursued by police.
The officers were charged with second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of official oppression and one count of aggravated assault.
Nichols’ family and their attorney Ben Crump also attended the hearing. At a news conference outside the courtroom, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, told reporters that the officers, all of them Black, didn’t have the courage to look her in the face.
“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.”
Mills’ attorney, Blake Ballin, told reporters after the hearing that his client also seeks justice.
“Much has been said on the way the system failed Mr. Nichols. I will work tirelessly to make sure the system does not fail Mr. Mills and a fair outcome is achieved,” he said, according to local station WREG.
"I want to remind everyone that the resolution of this indictment, to which Mr. Mills has pleaded not guilty, must be carried out without sympathy or prejudice, that it must be based on the facts and the law, and not the raw emotions that our country is currently experiencing," Ballin added.
Ballin said his client faces a criminal justice system that is biased against Black Americans.
“Let’s not forget that my client is a Black man in a courtroom in America, which is a country where Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of White people,” he said, according to CNN.
Bean’s lawyer, John Keith Perry, insisted that his client was just “doing his job” during the fatal arrest and he has not seen evidence of a murder, CNN reported.
Winning convictions against the ex-cops is not a slam-dunk. Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told CNN that prosecutors must prove the officers knowingly killed Nichols. Under Tennessee law, the prosecution has to show “they acted in such a way that they were reasonably certain that their actions could cause death.”
Judge James Jones Jr. asked for patience during the hearing because there’s a long process ahead and emotions are high. The officers are scheduled for their next appearance in court on May 1.
"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, and I will not allow any behavior that could jeopardize that right," he said.
On Jan. 20, Memphis police Director Cerelyn Davis announced that the officers were fired after a police probe.
“The Memphis Police Department has concluded its administrative investigation into the tragic death of Mr. Tyre Nichols. After a thorough review of the circumstances surrounding this incident, we have determined that five MPD officers violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid,” a police statement read.
A sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, who is white, was terminated Feb. 3 but not charged criminally.
According to Memphis station KAIT, an internal police probe found that Hemphill initially lied about seeing Nichols driving recklessly and that Nichols fought officers and tried to grab his partner’s gun, which was not seen on the police video. The footage revealed that Hemphill is heard saying that he used a stun gun against Nichols and declaring, “I hope they stomp his [expletive].”
Officials also relieved a seventh police officer from duty without naming that person or revealing their role in the brutal beating.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI announced a civil right probe into the traffic stop that ended in Nichols’ death.