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Lawyer for Nichols family says Tyre Nichols was ‘human piñata’ for police

29-year-old FedEx employee was beaten by police officers during an attempted traffic stop in Memphis. He died three days later.

Tyre Nichols‘s parents sat down with The Post on Jan. 23 after viewing body-cam footage of an arrest by Memphis police that she believes led to Nichols's death. (Video: Jessica Koscielniak, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

MEMPHIS — Tyre Nichols’s mother leaped from her seat and left the room the moment she heard her son’s voice on body-camera footage that shows the brutal police beating she is certain led to his death.

His stepfather stayed.

Rodney Wells said he watched Nichols cry out for his mother as officers pummeled him less than 100 yards from his home. Lawyers for the family said the 29-year-old was kicked, punched and Tasered.

“The brutality of it all, that’s the most jarring part,” Wells said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “It was just so brutal. He didn’t deserve that.”

Nichols, who had a 4-year-old son, was pronounced dead in a hospital three days after he was arrested by five Memphis police officers, all of whom have since been fired by the department.

Family members have said Nichols died of kidney failure and cardiac arrest on Jan. 10, three days after his encounter with the officers. A police spokesperson said officers pulled Nichols over for alleged reckless driving and Nichols fled on foot before he was ultimately arrested.

After watching the footage with his lawyers and city officials, Rodney Wells said he believed his stepson ran because he feared for his life.

“What I saw on the video today was horrific. No father or mother should see what we had to see today,” Wells said, adding that the family wants the officers to be charged with first-degree murder. “Anything short of that, we will not accept.”

The department has said it would release video footage of the arrest to the public after the family had a chance to view it but has not provided a more specific timeline. Attorneys for the family said Monday that they had agreed to a delay of one to two weeks at the request of police.

“A premature release could adversely impact the criminal investigation and the judicial process,” Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a statement.

At the news conference, the family urged supporters to keep their protests peaceful and not resort to violence when the video is eventually released.

Nichols was an amateur photographer and a skateboarder, who, like his stepfather, worked afternoon-evening shift at FedEx. They regularly came home at 7 p.m., on their lunch break, the family’s lawyers said, for a meal home-cooked by Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells.

Wells said her son suffered from Crohn’s disease and weighed no more than 145 pounds. “Nobody’s perfect, but he was damn near. My son loved me to death,” she said. “My son didn’t do no drugs. He didn’t kill no one. He didn’t like confrontation.”

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died on Jan. 10 after sustaining injuries during an encounter with Memphis police three days earlier. (Video: AP)

The Nichols family has spent the days since his death in protest, rallying demands for the department to release surveillance and body-camera footage and calling for the officers to be criminally prosecuted. They have shared a photo of Nichols’s battered face as he lay in a hospital bed before his death.

The Department of Justice and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are conducting separate investigations into the arrest.

Attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family, said the footage he saw Monday reminded him of the Los Angeles Police Department beating of Rodney King more than three decades ago — an attack that was also captured on video and that sparked widespread protests and changed the national conversation about police reform. “It is appalling,” Crump said. “It is deplorable. It is heinous. It is violent.”

Co-counsel Antonio Romanucci described Nichols as a “human piñata for these police officers.” As he spoke, RowVaughn Wells broke into tears and cried out, “My God!”

As the police chief prepared the family to watch the video Monday, the family’s lawyer said, she told them: “I’m not proud of what you’re about to see.”

Tyre Nichols’s mother spoke on Jan. 23 after she viewed the body-camera footage that showed the incident with police that led to Nichols’s death. (Video: AP)

RowVaughn Wells said she simply could not bear to stay in the conference room as the footage played, capturing the beating from the vantage point of multiple cameras.

“I just lost my child,” she said in an interview. “When I walked in that room and sat there and heard his voice, that just did something to me and I had to get out. I’ve already seen what they did to him. I don’t need to see how they did it.”

The Memphis police department announced the firing of the five officers involved in the Nichols arrest on Friday evening — a relatively quick decision compared with most administrative inquiries that take place after deaths in police custody in the United States. The department’s investigation found the officers — all of whom are Black — used excessive force and failed to intervene and render aid, violating department policy.

The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — each joined the department within the past five years.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen D. Camper (D), whose district includes much of Memphis, praised what she described as Davis’s “swift, decisive” action to fire the officers. The revelation that all five are Black has triggered complicated emotions, she said.

“I think the citizens of Memphis were surprised,” Camper said. “They were deeply saddened by it, and to some degree people were shocked because of whatever their own perceptions may have been. How that ultimately changes the reaction, I don’t know.”

Crump said he felt a responsibility to fight for the constitutional rights of Americans who are injured by police regardless of the race of the officer.

“What I have come to learn from doing this civil rights work against excessive-force policing is that it is not the race of the police officer that is the determinable factor of the amount of excessive force that would be exerted. It is the race of the citizen,” Crump said. “Yet again, we’re seeing evidence of what happens to Black and Brown people from simple traffic stops … You should not be killed because of a simple traffic stop. And we have to say to America: how you would treat our White brothers and sisters when you have a traffic stop with them, well, treat us Black and Brown citizens the same way.”

For Wells, learning the officers’ race was devastating and perplexing.

“It makes it even harder to swallow, because they are Black and they know what we have to go through,” she said. “I don’t understand why they had to do this to my son.”

The death of Tyre Nichols

The latest: A timeline of Memphis police footage shows Tyre Nichols waited 22 minutes for an ambulance. Body cam and surveillance footage of the incident were released Friday and reveal key details about his graphic beating. Here’s what to know about Tyre Nichols’s death.

Who is Tyre Nichols? A 29-year-old man in Memphis, Tyre Nichols was brutally beaten by police officers after a traffic stop earlier in January. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days after the officers arrested him. Tyre Nichols’ mother struggled to watch the Memphis police footage.

What is the Scorpion unit? The five officers involved in Tyre Nichols’s beating death have been fired and face second-degree murder charges, among others. Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis is leading the department that’s engulfed in crisis.

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