The initial in-court process of securing justice for Tyre D. Nichols began Friday morning as each of the five former officers accused of second-degree murder – and more – stood before Shelby County Criminal Court Judge James Jones Jr. and mouthed the words “not guilty.”
“Saying they’re not guilty, that’s a preliminary thing. Everybody is gonna say that,” Nichol’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said after the hearing at the Walter L. Bailey Jr. Criminal Justice Center.
“They (the five officers) are going to see me at every court date, every one, until we get justice for my son,” said Wells. “They didn’t even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son. … They haven’t done that yet. They didn’t do that today.”
Nichols died on January 10, three days after a brutish beating captured by video footage, the subsequent release of which fanned national and international outrage.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith are due back in court on May 1. Free on bond, they also are charged with aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who heads the legal team representing Nichols’ family, said it was a “very informative day as we move closer to justice,” expressing gratitude to Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, lead prosecutor Paul Hagerman and the district attorney team.
“Even though we want everybody to get due process … it’s important that we move swiftly toward justice,” he said. “We don’t want there to be any unnecessary delays in prosecuting this case with respect to everybody having their day in court. Those officers get to have their day in court. But my God, RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells get their day in court. …”
Assistant District Attorney Hagerman told reporters that “Memphis and the whole world needs to see that what’s right is done in this case, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
With a throng of reporters, photographers and local activists all maneuvering for position outside the courtroom, Mills’ attorney, Blake Ballin, said that while “much has been said about the way the system has failed Mr. Nichols,” he would “work tirelessly to make sure the system does not fail Mr. Mills.”
A fair outcome, he said, “must be based on the facts and the law and not the raw emotions that our country is currently experiencing. Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills.”
As a segment of the throng surged to him, attorney John Keith Perry, who represents Bean, said, “There should be justice for Tyre Nichols, absolutely. But I also stand by the fact that I am going to demand justice for Tadarrius Bean, calling him “nothing but a respectful, good young man. …
“And you look at the level involvement of each individual in that particular case, he was doing his job; no more, no less. He never struck anybody. He never did anything other than his job.”
That assertion would appear to have at least two holes.
Bean admitted to police investigators he punched Nichols two or three times in the face because officers weren’t able to handcuff Nichols. The admission was noted in a filing by the Memphis Police Department seeking to prohibit Bean from working in law enforcement again. The filing notes Bean’s actions were captured on video.
During a type of internal investigation that, for legal reasons, will likely never be seen by a jury, Bean admitted to throwing the punches. Bean also held Nichols by one of his arms while Nichols was pepper-sprayed, kicked, punched and beaten with a baton.
“I stand by the notion that right now due process in this matter has not taken place properly,” said Perry, asserting, “I’ve never seen people jump to conclusions about the isolated part of a two-minute excerpt about what was supposed to have happened on a particular night….
“I’ve never seen a person charged before anybody knows the cause of death. There is no definitive information regarding cause of death, at all.”
Casio Montez, who has been prominent among local activists protesting at the street level, peered toward Perry and said, “That man murdered that man, bro. … Stand on business, that s… was murder.”
Nichols, 29, was stopped for allegedly driving recklessly by members of the now-disbanded SCORPION unit. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said she had not seen any evidence supporting that claim.
At a press conference held outside after Monday’s arraignment, Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, said he had to be there in pursuit of “justice for our son. … It’s a glorious day. It’s the beginning of the process.”
RowVaughn Wells said she felt numb.
“This nightmare … I am waiting for somebody to wake me up. … But I also know that is not going to happen. I know my son is gone. I know I will never see him again. But we have to start this process.”
With rampant rumors on social media, Crump said, “We are relieved that they (the prosecutors’ office) have given information to try to dispel some of these rumors and innuendo that we keep being bombarded about, that somehow this (the beating of Nichols) was something personal. …
“The family is dealing with enough grieving the death of Tyre and their brave fight for justice than to have to deal with all these salacious rumors.”
It was a pattern seen before, said Crump, citing the George Floyd case as an example.
“All these rumors that are circulating are bogus and untrue…. What we want to stay laser-focused on is getting justice for Tyre Nichols and being able to define the legacy of Tyre Nichols….
“The SCORPION unit had a pattern and practice of doing this to Black people in Memphis. That’s it. You don’t need to go no further than that. …These special police units … they do this stuff in marginalized communities of color, where they tramp on the constitutional rights and human rights of Black and brown citizens. They don’t do that in the white communities to white citizens,” he said.
“That is why Tyre Nichols was killed. Because of this excessive force policing of Black citizens.”
Retired Shelby County Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, who along with Van Turner Jr., is part of the local arm of the family’s legal team, said, the next steps would not come “as swift as the indictment. But the indictment was the most important thing to get the wheels of just truly rolling. This is going to be a process and it’s not necessarily going to be held up by trying to slow the process.”
Dorse did not expect to see the case come to trial before the end of the year.
With an investigation ongoing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee, Crump said federal charges could emerge and take a parallel course to the state action.
“We know that in George Floyd’s tragic killing, those officers were prosecuted within the year. The hope is that we have a blueprint … on all these tragedies.”
Turner, who also is president of the Memphis Branch NAACP, said, “This case is going to be a landmark decision but it also needs to lead to policy. How do we stop this from happening again? The state needs to pass the Tyre Nichols Police Reform Act. We need the governor to sign the bill. …We want the thoughts and prayers, but we want action. We want this bill passed right now.”
He also called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill filed in the state legislature to eliminate Civilian Law Enforcement Review Boards (CLERB) such as the one in Memphis.
“The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board is the citizen’s eyes over law enforcement. Police can’t continue to police themselves,” Turner said. “If we are really serious about justice for Tyre, we want to make sure there is a swift prosecution and that these guys serve the time for what they did. And, we want to make sure there is swift action at the Tennessee Legislature.”
During a Q&A, Crump was asked about a sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, who has been fired but not charged for his role in what happened to Nichols.
“It is our hope that every officer who had anything to do with the death of her (RowVaughn Wells) son will be held accountable….,” Crump said.
Regarding civil litigation, Crump said while the legal team still is waiting for the completion of its ordered autopsy report, “We will be seeking full justice for Tyre Nichols. That is criminal culpability, civil accountability, and as my co-counsel, Van Turner said policy.
“We want legislative action. Because getting justice for Tyre is not about just having accountability of these officers. It’s about trying to prevent anybody else from being killed in this manner.”
(The story includes a report by the Associated Press.)