MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Five fired Memphis police officers were charged Thursday with murder and other crimes in the killing of Tyre Nichols, a Black motorist who died three days after a confrontation with the officers during a traffic stop.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told a news conference that although the officers each played different roles in the killing, “they are all responsible.”
The officers, who are all Black, each face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
Video of the Jan. 7 traffic stop will be released to the public sometime Friday evening, Mulroy said. Nichols' family and their lawyers said the footage shows officers savagely beating the 29-year-old FedEx worker for three minutes in an assault that the legal team likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. His family urged supporters to protest peacefully.
Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told The Associated Press by phone that he and his wife, RowVaughn Wells, who is Nichols’ mother, discussed the second-degree murder charges and are “fine with it.” They had sought first-degree murder charges.
“There’s other charges, so I’m all right with that,” he said.
Asked about the kidnapping charges, the district attorney said: “If it was a legal detention to begin with, it certainly became illegal at a certain point and was an unlawful detention.”
David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said he saw the video and found it “absolutely appalling.”
“Let me be clear: What happened here does not at all reflect proper policing. This was wrong. This was criminal,” Rausch said during the news conference.
Court records showed that all five former officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — were taken into custody.
Martin's lawyer, William Massey, confirmed that his client had turned himself in. He and Mills' lawyer, Blake Ballin, said their clients would plead not guilty. Lawyers for Smith, Bean and Haley could not be reached.
“No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” Massey said.
Both lawyers said they had not seen the video.
“We are in the dark about many things, just like the general public is,” Ballin said.
Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
Later Thursday, Nichols’ mother and stepfather were joined by several dozen supporters on a cold night for a candlelight vigil and prayer service at a Memphis skate park. Nichols, who had a 4-year-old son, was an avid skateboarder.
RowVaughn Wells thanked those who attended, then added that her family is “grief stricken.”
She warned supporters of the “horrific” nature of the video set to be released Friday, but she pleaded with supporters to “protest in peace.”
“I don’t want us burning up our city, tearing up the streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said. “If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully. You can get your point across but we don’t need to tear up our cities, people, because we do have to live in them.”
Activists and clergy led the group in prayer and a drummer played a steady rhythm to lead into the spoken part of the vigil. Afterwards, skaters rode their boards as Wells and her husband watched.
The attorneys for Nichols' family, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, issued a statement saying that Nichols "lost his life in a particularly disgusting manner that points to the desperate need for change and reform to ensure this violence stops occurring during low-threat procedures, like in this case, a traffic stop.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who runs the National Action Network and will deliver the eulogy at Nichols’ funeral service next week, called the charges “a necessary step in delivering justice” for Nichols.
“There is no point to putting a body camera on a cop if you aren’t going to hold them accountable when the footage shows them relentlessly beating a man to death,” Sharpton said. “Firings are not enough. Indictments and arrests are not convictions. As we’ve done in the past ... we will stand by this family until justice is done.”
At the White House, President Joe Biden said the Nichols family and the city of Memphis deserve “a swift, full and transparent investigation.”
“Public trust is the foundation of public safety, and there are still too many places in America today where the bonds of trust are frayed or broken,” Biden said in a statement.
The Memphis police chief has called the officers' actions that night “heinous, reckless and inhumane."
“This is not just a professional failing. This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual," Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said in a video statement released late Wednesday on social media.
Davis said the five officers found to be “directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols," were fired last week, but other officers are still being investigated for violating department policy. In addition, she said “a complete and independent review” will be conducted of the department’s specialized units, without providing further details.
Two fire department workers were also removed from duty over the Nichols’ arrest.
As state and federal investigations continue, Davis promised the police department's “full and complete cooperation” to determine what contributed to Nichols' Jan. 10 death.
Mulroy told The Associated Press on Tuesday that local and state investigators wanted to complete as many interviews as possible before releasing the video. The timetable has rankled some activists who expected the video to be released after Nichols’ family and the family's lawyers viewed it Monday.
Crump said the video showed that Nichols was shocked, pepper-sprayed and restrained when he was pulled over near his home. He was returning home from a suburban park where he had taken photos of the sunset.
Police have said Nichols was stopped for reckless driving and at some point fled from the scene.
Relatives have accused the police of causing Nichols to have a heart attack and kidney failure. Authorities have only said Nichols experienced a medical emergency.
When video of the arrest is publicly released, Davis said she expects people in the community to react, but she urged them to do so peacefully.
"None of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community or against our citizens," she said.
One of the officers, Haley, was accused previously of using excessive force. He was named as a defendant in a 2016 federal civil rights lawsuit while employed by the Shelby County Division of Corrections.
The plaintiff, Cordarlrius Sledge, stated that he was an inmate in 2015 when Haley and another corrections officer accused him of flushing contraband. The two officers “hit me in the face with punches,” according to the complaint.
A third officer then slammed his head to the ground, Sledge said. He lost consciousness and woke up in the facility’s medical center.
The claims were ultimately dismissed after a judge ruled that Sledge had failed to file a grievance against the officers within 30 days of the incident.