Five Officers Charged With Second-Degree Murder


MEMPHIS–Five Memphis police officers were charged on Thursday with second-degree murder for the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, after a traffic stop that escalated into what the authorities have described as a display of staggering brutality.

The city has been bracing for more than a week for the release of video footage that officials say depicts in agonizing detail how a stop this month for suspicion of reckless driving ended with Mr. Nichols being hospitalized in critical condition on Jan. 7 and dying three days later.  Civic leaders and others in Memphis have raised concerns about the reaction the footage could provoke among residents who are already anguished and outraged about Mr. Nichols’s death.

A grand jury returned indictments on Thursday against the five officers–Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith–with charges that include kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression, in addition to second-degree murder, prosecutors said.  The officers, all of whom are Black, were fired last week.

“The actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols, and they are all responsible,” Steven J. Mulroy, the district attorney for Memphis, told reporters on Thursday.

Officials have sought to assuage residents, promising an aggressive pursuit of accountability.  On Thursday–16 days after Mr. Nichols died–they offered up the charges as evidence that they were following through.  “We did work quickly to expedite this investigation,” Mr. Mulroy said.

The city is expected to release the video on Friday evening.  Officials said it would consist of nearly an hour of footage taken from police body cameras and stationary cameras, with limited redactions, such as blurring out faces of people who are not city employees.  “People will be able to see the entire incident from beginning to end,” Mr. Mulroy said in an appearance on CNN.

The officers were booked into the Shelby County jail on Thursday, with bail amounts ranging between $250,000 and $350,000.  As of Friday morning, all but one had posted bail and had been released.

The charges grew out of an unusually fast-moving state investigation that revealed that the officers–who were part of a specialized unit patrolling high-crime areas of the city–had used a level of force that was beyond excessive, officials said.  A separate federal civil rights investigation is also underway.

“In a word, it’s absolutely appalling,” David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which led the investigation, said of what he witnessed in the footage.

“I’m shocked, I’m sickened by what I saw and what we learned through our investigation,” he added.  “Let me be clear, what happened here does not reflect proper policing.  This was wrong, this was criminal.”

In Memphis, a city of 628,000 where nearly two-thirds of residents are Black, the fact that all five of the fired officers are Black has added a complicated layer of pain.  “I was waiting for their faces to be on TV,” said Carrie Louise Pinson, a 73-year-old resident and longtime activist, “and when I saw all Black policemen–how could you do this?”

Lawyers representing the officers said on Thursday that they had not seen the video and could not comment specifically on the allegations.  Still, they urged the community to avoid rushing to judgment and challenged the portrayal of the officers as vicious and violent.

“No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” said William Massey, who is representing Mr. Martin.

“At this point, we don’t know what proof they have,” he added.  “We do not have discovery, and we’ve not seen the video.  So we’re kind of in the blind right now.”

Blake Ballin, a lawyer representing Mr. Mills, said his client was a father and family man who “could not be more upset about this entire situation.”

Mr. Nichols’s family had said earlier this week that they wanted first-degree murder charges for the officers.  But Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing them, said on Thursday that they considered the indictment an encouraging development.

“The news today from Memphis officials that these five officers are being held criminally accountable for their deadly and brutal actions gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre,” Mr. Crump said in a statement.

In his own statement, President Biden said that Mr. Nichols’s family deserved a “swift, full and transparent investigation into his death,” adding that violence “has no place in peaceful protests.”  Mr. Biden also acknowledged that police killings “disparately” impact Black communities and called on Congress to pass a police reform bill, named in memory of George Floyd, that stalled in the Senate during his first year in office.

Mr. Nichols was stopped on the evening of Jan. 7 near the southeastern corner of the city.  The officers who stopped him were part of a group of specialized officers known as the SCORPION Unit, which was created in 2021 to work in neighborhoods where crime and violence have been pervasive.

The police, in an initial statement, said that a “confrontation occurred” as the officers approached Mr. Nichols’s vehicle, and he ran away.  There was then “another confrontation” as officers arrested him, the statement said.  Mr. Nichols complained of shortness of breath, and an ambulance was called to take him to a hospital, officials said.

His family shared photographs of Mr. Nichols in the hospital, apparently unconscious and relying on a ventilator with his face bruised and swollen.

An independent autopsy commissioned by his family found that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary findings released on Tuesday.

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican, said in a statement that “cruel, criminal abuse of power will not be tolerated in the State of Tennessee,” and that Memphis and its Police Department “need to take a hard look at the misconduct and failure that has occurred within this unit.”

Last week, the Police Department said the five officers had been fired after a “thorough review of the circumstances surrounding this incident,” which found that they had violated department policies on excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid.

The Memphis Fire Department has said that two of its employees who responded to the scene have also been “relieved of duty” while it conducts its own internal investigation.

The five officers who were charged all joined the department between 2017 and 2020.  Other officers are also being investigated for policy violations, police officials said. Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, said that she has ordered a review of specialized groups like the SCORPION Unit.

In a video statement posted online on Wednesday, Ms. Davis, the police chief, said the public would see footage that was infuriating and unsettling.  “This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane,” she said, “and in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourself.”

“I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels,” Chief Davis added.  “I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights, as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video.”

Some of the first descriptions of what was recorded at the scene were shared on Monday by Mr. Nichols’s family and their lawyers after they were shown the video in private.

Mr. Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, had to stop the video when she tried to watch it.  His stepfather called it horrifying. Antonio Romanucci, a lawyer for the family, said the video showed Mr. Nichols being pummeled like a “human piñata.”

“‘What did I do?’–that was his question,” Mr. Crump said of Mr. Nichols during a Monday news conference.  “‘What did I do?’”

The video showed Mr. Nichols was beaten by officers for three minutes, Mr. Romanucci said, adding that he was also pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun and restrained.

Mr. Nichols told the officers that he just wanted to go home, the lawyers said.  His parents’ house was less than 100 yards away.

As the release of the video looms, officials, community leaders and Mr. Nichols’s family have implored residents not to let demonstrations morph into something more dangerous and destructive.  “My hope is that they all remain peaceful because the last thing we need on top of this tragedy is for a protest to get out of hand,” said Ian Randolph, chairman of the Memphis N.A.A.C.P.’s political action committee.

At a vigil on Thursday night, Ms. Wells said, “If you’re here for me and Tyre, you’ll protest peacefully.”

“We don’t tear up our cities, because we do have to live in them,” she added.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security said in a statement that it would be monitoring protests and it “stands ready to assist communities along with local, state and federal partners.”

Mr. Nichols’s death has fueled anger with the Police Department at a moment in Memphis when tensions over violence and crime have also prompted calls to expand the force.  Those frustrations were intensified last year after a kindergarten teacher was abducted on an early morning jog and then found dead, and a shooting spree by a gunman who killed four people, wounded three others and set off a manhunt across the city.

“We just have a long way to go as a Police Department–especially a Police Department that looks a lot like what the community looks like,” said Torrey Harris, a state lawmaker.

The Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols, who leads an activist coalition in Memphis called Micah, said “there’s something inside of policing and the culture of policing that must change.”

“We have officers who felt comfortable doing what those officers did,” said Ms. Nichols, who is not related to Tyre Nichols, “and that is deplorably unacceptable.”

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