Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith are the five former officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who the five police officers beat for three minutes on Jan. 7, 2023, resulting in his death in the hospital three days later.
Nichols was stopped for what the police initially said was reckless driving. Traffic and police camera videos showed the former officers striking Nichols with a baton and punching and kicking him.
The five former officers, who are also Black, pleaded not guilty on Friday to second-degree murder charges. They also face charges of official misconduct, kidnapping, and official oppression.
A sixth officer has been fired, with other officers experiencing internal department discipline.
The former officers were part of Scorpion, a specialized street crime unit initially formed in 2021 to combat rising crime rates.
According to interviews and records, arrestees were commonly overpowered with Tasers, pepper spray, or brute force. Scorpion officers pulled over many motorists for low-level violations. Minor encounters often escalated with tactics that were often brutal.
The mayor of Memphis, Jim Strickland, credited the Scorpion unit with decreasing crime rates, but the unit got disbanded after the death of Nichols.
"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," Assistant district attorney Paul Hagerman said.
Desmond Mills Jr.'s defense attorney, Blake Ballin, argued that the officers were entitled to a fair trial.
"It must be based on the facts and the law, not the raw emotions our country is currently experiencing," Mills said.
Internal police documents released demonstrated that the officers tried to excuse the beating with false accounts of being in danger. Demetrius Haley claimed that he heard one of his fellow officers tell Nichols to "let my gun go!"
"Video evidence did not support your oral or written statement and your information was deemed untruthful,” Memphis Inspectional Services Bureau said in a report released on January 14.
The Nichols family's lawyer, Ben Crump, argued that Tyre Nichols' death resulted from a violent policing strategy exemplified by units like Scorpion.
"The Scorpion unit had a pattern and practice of doing this to Black people in Memphis — that's it," Crump said. "They trample on the constitutional rights and human rights of Black and Brown citizens. They don't do that in the white communities to white citizens."
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