BY ADRIAN SAINZ
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Four former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal civil rights charges in the violent beating and death of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop nine months ago.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley Desmond Mills and Justin Smith were led by U.S. Marshals into a courtroom wearing handcuffs and leg restraints for their first hearing since they were charged Tuesday with using excessive force and conspiring to lie about the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols as he cried out for his mother just steps from his home.
Magistrate Judge Charmiane G. Claxton accepted the not guilty pleas from lawyers for the four officers, who were fired for violations of Memphis Police Department policy after Nichols died three days after he was punched, kicked and hit with a baton in a pummeling that was caught on police video.
A fifth officer who was also fired and indicted by a federal grand jury, Emmitt Martin, was scheduled to make his first appearance Thursday. All five were charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law through excessive force and failure to intervene, and through deliberate indifference; conspiracy to witness tampering; and obstruction of justice through witness tampering.
The five officers also have been charged in state court with second-degree murder and other alleged offenses in the beating death of Nichols, which is one of several violent encounters between police and Black people that have sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and police reform in the U.S.
The five former officers, all Black like Nichols, have pleaded not guilty to the state charges as well.
Claxton ordered the release of the four officers who were present in court Wednesday on a $50,000 unsecured bond, which means that they don’t have to pay any money unless they fail to appear in court.
Kristen Clarke, who leads the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, said at a Tuesday news conference that the five former officers used excessive force, failed to advise medical personnel about Nichols’ injuries, and conspired to cover up their misconduct.
The officers were part of a crime-suppression team that officials disbanded after Nichols’ death. However, members of that Scorpion unit have been moved to other teams.
The indictment says the officers failed to tell dispatchers, their supervisor and emergency medical technicians they knew Nichols had been hit repeatedly, trying to cover up their use of force and shield themselves from criminal liability.
Additionally, the indictment alleges instances where the officers used their body cameras to limit what evidence could be captured at the scene: Martin moved his body camera where it wouldn’t show video of the beating; Haley and Smith activated theirs only after the assault; and Haley and Mills took theirs off when emergency medical personnel were on the scene.
At the arrest scene, the officers afterward discussed hitting Nichols with “straight haymakers,” even as Nichols’ condition deteriorated and he became unresponsive, the indictment said. Nichols could be seen on police video on the ground, slumped against a police car.
The indictment accuses the officers of gathering after the beating and saying, among other things, that “I thought when he wasn’t going to fall, we about to kill this man.” The indictment does not specify which officer made that statement.
The indictment also alleges the officers falsely stated Nichols actively resisted arrest at the beating scene and that he grabbed Smith’s protective vest and pulled on the officers’ duty belts.
Attorneys for several of the former officers said the federal indictment was no surprise. Blake Ballin, Mills’ lawyer, told reporters outside the federal courthouse that Mills is taking the charges very seriously, and he is looking forward to defending himself in court.
“It’s especially scary and uncomfortable for somebody who dedicated his life to being a law enforcement officer and now finds himself on the other side of things,” Ballin said.