After five former Memphis police officers charged in the beating death of Tyre Nichols pleaded not guilty in a court appearance Friday, Nichols’s mother issued a challenge to the officers outside the courthouse: “Look me in the face.”
During the hearing, Judge James Jones asked onlookers for “continued civility” as the case is adjudicated, and he set the next court appearance for the officers for May 1.
“We understand that there may be some high emotions, but we ask that you continue to be patient with us,” Jones said.
The graphic video of Nichols’s Jan. 7 beating, captured by the officers’ body cameras and a police surveillance camera, prompted protests across the country last month, adding urgency to campaigns for nationwide police reform and eliciting responses from President Biden and the United Nations.
Officers kicked and punched Nichols and struck him with a baton after he fled on foot from a traffic stop that quickly turned violent. The 29-year-old Black man died in a hospital three days later. The five officers, all of whom are also Black, were fired from the department, then arrested and criminally charged on Jan. 26.
The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — each face counts of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Each was released on bond after their arrests last month.
The Nichols family wrote a letter to the U.N. requesting “urgent action regarding the torture and extrajudicial killing of Tyre Nichols.”
In a statement on Feb. 10, a United Nations human rights official cited the young man’s death and the death of Keenan Anderson, a D.C. teacher who died after police in Los Angeles repeatedly used a Taser on him, in calling for police reform and accountability.
“The brutal deaths of Keenan Anderson and Tyre Nichols are more reminders of the urgency to act,” said Yvonne Mokgoro, chairperson of the U.N. International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the context of Law Enforcement.
U.N. experts said the killing of Nichols violated “international norms protecting the right to life and prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
On Friday, Nichols’s mother said she planned to be in the audience at each of the officers’ court appearances.
“I feel very numb right now,” Wells said. “I’m waiting for this nightmare that I’m going through — for somebody to wake me up. But I know that’s not going to happen.”
The consequences for the beating death of Nichols also have extended to three Memphis Fire Department employees who were fired and two Shelby County Sheriff’s Office deputies who were suspended for five days. A sixth police officer, Preston Hemphill, was fired as well. Hemphill can be heard on body-camera footage saying “I hope they stomp his a--,” as Nichols fled from his initial detainment.
Attorneys for two of the charged officers made pleas for fairness on Friday, urging the public to wait before passing judgment on what happened during the arrest.
Blake Ballin, who is representing Mills, said the demand for change in how the criminal justice system treats Black men is valid, and that Mills is at risk of becoming a victim.
“Let’s not forget that my client is a Black man in a courtroom in America,” Ballin told reporters after the court appearance. “Much has been said about the ways this system failed Mr. Nichols. I will work tirelessly to make sure that the system does not fail Mr. Mills and that a fair outcome is achieved.”
Bean’s attorney, John Keith Perry Jr., said there’s been a rush to judgment of the officers since the video’s release.
Perry challenged a reporter who asked him to justify Bean’s innocence in light of the footage. “Have you ever made an arrest?” Perry asked. “Have you ever jumped out of a car trying to apprehend somebody you think might have committed a carjacking, a rape, a robbery, a kidnapping?”
Memphis NAACP President Van Turner called on lawmakers to pass legislation to prevent police killings. The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus said last month it planned to introduce legislation this year that would prevent officers who are fired for excessive force from being rehired by other departments, among other measures.
“This case is going to be a landmark decision but it also needs to lead to policy,” Turner said. “How do we stop this from happening again?”
The death of Tyre Nichols
The latest: The Justice Department is launching a review of the Memphis Police Department’s use of force policies and practices. Each of the five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in Tyre Nichols’ death. One of the officers texted a photo of bloodied Tyre to colleagues, according to records.
What has Memphis police footage revealed?: The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has sparked a complex dialogue on institutional racism in policing. Some of the most haunting videos came from SkyCop cameras.
Who was Tyre Nichols?: The 29-year-old father was pepper-sprayed, punched and kicked by Memphis cops after a January traffic stop. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days after his arrest. At Tyre Nichols’ funeral service, his family said they are focused on getting justice.
What is the Scorpion unit?: After the fallout from the brutal beating, Memphis police shut down the Scorpion unit.