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Five fired Memphis officers charged with second-degree murder of Tyre Nichols

Jan. 26, 2023 Updated Thu., Jan. 26, 2023 at 8:57 p.m.

Activists hold signs showing Tyre Nichols as attorney Ben Crump is seen speaking on a monitor during a news conference at Mount Olive Cathedral CME Church on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn., addressing video footage of the violent police encounter that led to Nichols’ death.  (Brandon Dill/For The Washington Post)
Activists hold signs showing Tyre Nichols as attorney Ben Crump is seen speaking on a monitor during a news conference at Mount Olive Cathedral CME Church on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn., addressing video footage of the violent police encounter that led to Nichols’ death. (Brandon Dill/For The Washington Post)
By Robert Klemko Washington Post

Five former Memphis, Tennessee, police officers are facing second-degree murder and other charges in the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old motorist who was fatally injured after being pulled over by police earlier this month.

A grand jury returned indictments Thursday against Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith and Tadarrius Bean, said Shelby County district attorney Steven Mulroy. All five were fired last week in connection with the beating. Each was being held Thursday afternoon at the Shelby County Jail.

The five suspects all joined the Memphis Police Department within the last six years. Each of them is Black, as was Nichols. They are charged with second-degree murder, “aggravated assault – acting in concert,” two counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of official misconduct and one count of official oppression. Additionally, the Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation into Nichols’s death.

The arrest of the ex-officers set the stage for the public release on Friday evening of surveillance and body-camera footage of their interaction with Nichols, which local officials have said could spark violence in Memphis. Mulroy said footage of the arrest would be released to the public on Friday evening, some time after 4 p.m. Pacific time.

Law enforcement officials who have seen the videos have been strikingly vocal in their condemnation of the arrest. At a news conference Thursday announcing the criminal charges, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director David B. Rausch said the officers’ actions were “absolutely appalling.”

“We are here to pursue truth and justice, realizing that we should not be here. Simply put, this should not have happened,” Rausch said. “I’m sickened by what I saw.”

In a statement following the announcement of charges, President Biden noted that “fatal encounters with law enforcement have disparately impacted Black and Brown people,” and called for Congress to advance the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police accountability bill that stalled in the Senate in 2021.

“Tyre’s death is a painful reminder that we must do more to ensure that our criminal justice system lives up to the promise of fair and impartial justice, equal treatment, and dignity for all,” Biden said. “Today, we all must re-commit ourselves to the critical work that must be done to advance meaningful reforms.”

After viewing the footage on Monday, Nichols’s stepfather and lawyers for Nichols’s family said he was kicked, punched and Tasered less than 100 yards from his home. A police spokesperson said officers pulled Nichols over for alleged reckless driving, and Nichols fled on foot before he was ultimately arrested. Offering clues as to the specifics of the interaction, Mulroy said the police detainment at one point became unlawful, hence the kidnapping charge.

In announcing the firing of the officers on Jan. 20, Memphis police said they had used excessive force and failed to intervene and render aid, violating department policy.

Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader who will attend Nichols’s funeral next week, said the race of the five officers adds to the tragedy.

“The fact that these officers are Black makes it more egregious to those of us in the Civil Rights movement,” Sharpton said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “These officers should not be allowed to hide their deeds behind their Blackness. We are against all police brutality – not just white police brutality. “

Attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family, said the body-camera footage of the arrest 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.

On Thursday, Crump and his co-counsel Antonio Romanucci said the indictments of Haley, Mills, Martin, Smith and Bean “gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre.”

“This tragedy meets the absolute definition of a needless and unnecessary death,” the two attorneys said in a statement. “Tyre’s loved ones’ lives were forever changed when he was beaten to death, and we will keep saying his name until justice is served.”

Nichols’s family said he suffered from Crohn’s disease and struggled to maintain body weight, hovering around 145 pounds for most of his adulthood. At least two of the officers involved in the deadly encounter – Martin and Mills – played college football; according to their booking information on the jail website, all weighed more than 200 pounds.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, speaking in a video statement Wednesday night, decried the “horrific circumstances surrounding the death of Tyre Nichols” and described the case as “our defining moment.” Davis, who joined the department in 2021 as its first Black, female chief, has been a leading voice for police reform since the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in 2020.

“In our hurt, in our outrage and frustration, there is still work to be done to build each other up,” Davis said in the video statement. “to show those who watch us now that this behavior is not what will define our community and great city.”

Davis spoke with Nichols’s family on Monday before a private viewing of the body-camera footage, warning them, “I’m not proud of what you’re about to see,” according to Nichols’s stepfather, Rodney Wells.

After viewing the footage Monday, Wells and Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, stressed the need for non-violent demonstration once the videos are publicly released. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz, who announced the the federal civil rights investigation into the death this week, joined the family in urging Memphis residents to protest peacefully.

“We want people to respect their right to be heard,” Ritz said, “but we want them to do so in a peaceful and non-violent way.”

Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, described her son as a “gentle soul.”

“Tyre was a beautiful person,” Wells said in an interview on Monday. “He loved to skateboard. He loved to take pictures. He liked to go see the sunset. And most of all, he loved his mother and he loved his son.

“Those five men – their families are heartbroken as well,” she continued. “They hurt a lot of people when they did this. I don’t understand why they had to do this to my son.”

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