Five former United States police officers have pleaded not guilty in the killing of Tyre Nichols, whose death following a violent traffic stop in the city of Memphis set off protests and renewed calls for an end to police violence.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith made their first court appearances with their lawyers on Friday before a judge in Shelby County Criminal Court.
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The former officers pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression in relation to the January 7 arrest of Nichols, which was captured on video.
The footage shows the officers beating the 29-year-old father and FedEx worker for three minutes in an assault that the Nichols family’s legal team likened to the 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King, which was also videotaped.
“I am numb, just numb as I can be right now,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said on Friday as she walked into the courtroom dressed in black.
After the court hearing, Wells dismissed the officers’ not-guilty plea, saying that it was expected.
“I’m going to leave it up to the district attorney’s office to get them prosecuted … and then they’ll find them guilty,” Wells told reporters outside the courtroom. “So, them saying they’re not guilty, that’s a preliminary thing. Everybody’s going to say that.”
She pledged to attend every session in court going forward.
“I want each and every one of those police officers to be able to look me in the face. They haven’t done that yet. They couldn’t even do that today. They didn’t even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son,” Wells said.
Nichols, who died in hospital three days after the traffic stop, attempted to converse with police as they shouted orders and threatened him with violence during the ordeal.
“You guys are really doing a lot right now. I’m just trying to go home,” he said at one point as he sat on the street and officers stood over 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. He cried out for his mother several times.
The five officers, all of whom are Black, have been fired from the police force, and the special unit they were members of has been disbanded. They were all released on bond as they await trial. Their next hearing has been scheduled for May 1.
“Be patient. Work with your attorneys,” Judge James Jones Jr said to the officers during Friday’s court appearance. “There may be some high emotions in this case.”
Nichols’s case has recalled the 2020 killing of George Floyd, who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His death set off mass protests worldwide that demanded an end to racism and police brutality.
Memphis police said Nichols had been suspected of reckless driving, but no verified evidence of a traffic violation has emerged in public documents or in video footage.
The city’s police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, has said she has seen no evidence justifying the stop or the officers’ response. Davis also previously said the video footage of the fatal incident depicted “acts that defy humanity”.
One white officer who was also involved in the initial traffic stop has been fired while an additional officer who has not been identified has been suspended.
The Memphis case has stood out for the speed in which the officers were fired and charged.
On Friday, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump – who is representing Nichols’ family – warned against “any unnecessary delays” in prosecuting the former officers. “It’s important that we move swiftly towards justice,” He told reporters.