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All 5 ex-Memphis officers plead not guilty in the beating death of Tyre Nichols

Attorney Ben Crump (from left) Tyre Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells, exit the courthouse in Memphis after five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Friday to second-degree murder and other charges in Nichols' death.
Adrian Sainz
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AP
Attorney Ben Crump (from left) Tyre Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, and stepfather, Rodney Wells, exit the courthouse in Memphis after five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Friday to second-degree murder and other charges in Nichols' death.

Updated February 17, 2023 at 12:20 PM ET

The five former police officers accused in the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man pulled from his car during a traffic stop last month and then brutally beaten, pleaded not guilty today during their first court appearance in Memphis.

The suspects — Tadarrius Bean, Emmitt Martin III, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith and Desmond Mills Jr. – were arrested and indicted last month on felony charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.

All five men have been free on bond, and appeared only briefly on Friday, standing side by as each of their lawyers entered pleas on their behalf. The parents of Tyre Nichols sat in the courtroom gallery beside their attorney, Ben Crump.

"Memphis, and the whole world, needs to see that what's right is done in this case," Paul Hagerman, an assistant district attorney, said in the hallway outside the courtroom after the hearing. "We believe it's important that everybody who did something criminal is brought to justice in this case."

Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, called Friday's arraignment "the beginning of the process of justice," and said she and her family were determined to see it through to the end.

"They didn't even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son," she said of the defendants' brief courtroom appearance. "So they're going to see me at every court date, every one, until we get justice for my son."

Nichols died on Jan. 10, three days after he was pulled over for what officers said was reckless driving. Bodycam video showed one of the officers, Demetrius Haley, aggressively pulling Nichols out of his car, forcing him to the ground and pepper-spraying him before another officer, who was later fired but not criminally charged, used a Taser against him.

Nichols managed to escape but was caught by officers minutes later and mercilessly punched, kicked in the head and beaten with a baton. Bodycam footage and video from a nearby police surveillance camera showed Nichols never appeared to resist or fight back. After the beating, he writhed in the pain for roughly 20 minutes before emergency responders began treating him.

The five officers seen beating Nichols – all members of a specialized crime fighting team within the Memphis Police Department that has since been disbanded — were swiftly fired and then charged. A sixth officer who participated in the initial traffic stop but has not been criminally charged was also later fired.

This combination of images provided by the Memphis Police Department shows (top row from left) officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III (bottom row from left) Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith.
/ Memphis Police Department via AP
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Memphis Police Department via AP
This combination of images provided by the Memphis Police Department shows (top row from left) officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III (bottom row from left) Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said an investigation found no evidence that Nichols had in fact been driving recklessly before he was stopped. The investigation also faulted the five now-former officers for a string of departmental policy violations, including, in the case of one man, lying in the report he filed about the incident.

John Keith Perry, the attorney for Tadarrius Bean, signaled after Friday's hearing that his strategy is likely to rely on convincing a jury that not all five former officers shared equal culpability in Nichols' beating and death.

"You look at the involvement of each individual defendant, and in that particular case, he was doing his job, no more, no less," Perry said. "He never struck anybody. He never did anything other than his job."

Blake Ballin, a lawyer for Desmond Mills, pleaded with the public not to rush to judgement.

"Let's not forget that my client is a Black man in a courtroom in America," he said. "I will work tirelessly to make sure the system does not fail Mr. Mills, and that a fair outcome is achieved."

The second-degree murder charge the five officers face carries a sentence of 15 to 60 years. Shelby County Criminal Court judge James Jones Jr. set the next court date for May 1.

Fallout from the case has embroiled Memphis for weeks.

Officials have said at least seven other members of the police department who were at the scene of the beating are being investigated and that more criminal charges could come. County sheriff's deputies, fire department staff, and emergency medical responders who delayed treating Nichols' injuries have also been either fired or suspended.

Last week, the City Council preliminarily approved six ordinances to revamp the police department, including one that would restrict officers' ability to conduct routine traffic stops and another that would ban officers from making traffic stops while in unmarked cars like the ones officers used to stop Nichols. Among other measures, the council also voted to strengthen the civilian review board that investigates complaints of police abuse.

Protests began locally in Memphis soon after the Jan. 7 beating. But it was the searing video of the ordeal, released on Jan. 27, that drew national attention. It outraged but also confounded many people, who struggled to make sense of such a cruel, seemingly unprovoked attack on a man whose family and friends described as a peaceful soul. Adding a layer of complexity to the outpouring of anger and grief was that unlike many recent high profile cases of Black people killed by white police, all five of the men charged in Nichols' killing are Black.

Protesters march in Memphis last month over the death of Tyre Nichols, who died Jan. 10, three days after being beaten by Memphis police officers.
Gerald Herbert / AP
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AP
Protesters march in Memphis last month over the killing of Tyre Nichols, who died Jan. 10, three days after being pulled over and beaten by Memphis police officers.

Their ruthlessness shocked even activists who have been calling for police reform in Memphis for years.

"You become so used to watching police violence in the city of Memphis," said L.J. Abraham, an organizer with the Tennessee-based Equity Alliance. "But I don't think any of us ever expected to see someone as gentle and kind and nonviolent as Tyre be pulled out of his car and beaten to death. If that would happen to him, that could literally happen to anybody."

In recent years, Memphis officials have undertaken an aggressive push to hire hundreds of new police officers amid stubbornly high rates of violent crime.

But as the department has struggled to fill its ranks, it has lowered hiring criteria, even seeking permission to recruit officers with criminal records. Critics have warned those moves could mean more enlisted police officers unfit to serve and more likely to abuse their authority.

The police department has said it still has up to 20 hours of unreleased footage of Nichols' arrest and beating that it plans to make public once investigations into other officers are complete. The Memphis city attorney told City Council members those investigations could be done as soon as this week.

WKNO's Katie Riordan contributed reporting from Memphis. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.