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Not Guilty Plea for Five Ex-MPD in Tyre Nichols Death

Tyre Nichols' mother, RowVaugh Wells (right), speaks after the first court appearance for the five former officers charged in her son's death. Attorney Ben Crump stands by her side.
Katie Riordan
Tyre Nichols' mother, RowVaugh Wells (right), speaks after the first court appearance for the five former officers charged in her son's death. Attorney Ben Crump stands by her side.

Five former Memphis Police officers entered not guilty pleas in the death of Tyre Nichols at their first court appearance Friday morning. Presiding Shelby County Court Judge James Jones Jr. asked for patience as the case now works its way to a possible trial.

The officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith—stood silently beside their legal representation in the courtroom.

The charges they face of second-degree murder—among others including aggravated assault and official misconduct—are a result of the night of the violent arrest of Nichols. He died three days after the officers were seen on body camera footage and other surveillance video restraining and brutally beating him as they took him into custody following an alleged traffic stop.

“We believe it’s important that everybody who took part in this criminality—everybody who did something criminal—is brought to justice in this case,” Shelby County prosecutor Paul Hagerman said outside the courtroom following the arraignment.

In brief remarks, Judge Jones told attendees to be prepared for a legal process that could be lengthy.

“Everyone involved wants this case to be concluded as quickly as possible,” he said. “But it’s important for you all to understand that the state of Tennessee, as well as each one of these defendants have an absolute right to a fair trial, and I will not allow any behavior that could jeopardize that right.”

In a prepared statement delivered to reporters, Blake Ballin, the defense attorney for Mills Jr., said he understood the grief surrounding Nichols’ death, but he appealed to the public to be “patient” and “cautious” in judging his client.

“The resolution of this indictment, to which Mr. Mills has plead not guilty… must be based on the facts and the law and not the raw emotions that our country is currently experiencing,” Ballin said. “Justice for Mr. Nichols will not be achieved at the expense of justice for Mr. Mills.”

A lawyer representing former officer Bean, John Keith Perry, called his client a “respectful, good, young man throughout his life.” Perry called into question how due process is playing out and later said it’s possible attorneys may seek separate trials for each of the officers.

“You look at the level of involvement of each individual defendant and in that particular case, [Bean] was doing his job,” Perry said.

Nichols mother and stepfather RowVaughn and Rodney Wells sat in the courtroom for the arraignment. Afterwards, RowVaughn Wells described feeling numb, but reinforced her commitment to seeking justice for her son.

“I know my son is gone. I know I’ll never see him again,” she said. “But we have to start this process of justice right now. I want each and everyone of those police officers to be able to look me in the face. They haven’t done that yet.”

Wells’ attorney Ben Crump also addressed reporters and dismissed rumors that have spread online that the officers’ conduct was a result of some sort of personal connection to Nichols.

“The family is dealing with enough grieving the death of Tyre and their brave fight for justice than have to deal with all these salacious rumors,” Crump said.

The five now former officers, who are out on bail, are slated to appear again in court May 1.

At least seven additional members of the MPD are still under an administrative investigation related to Nichols’ death and arrest.

Once MPD concludes the administrative investigation process, the city of Memphis has pledged to release more camera footage and recordings from the incident.

Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org