18 August 2023
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge on Friday set a September court hearing to discuss requests by three of five former Memphis police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols to face separate trials.
Lawyers for Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills and Justin Smith have filed motions asking Judge James Jones Jr. to grant them separate trials on second-degree murder and other charges in the violent beating and death of Nichols in January.
The three officers, plus former colleagues Demetrius Haley and Emmitt Martin, have pleaded not guilty to charges connected with Nichols’ beating, which was captured on police video and intensified discussions about police brutality in Memphis and across the country.
If the judge grants all the severance requests, there could be four trials for the officers, who have been fired for violations of Memphis Police Department policies in connection with Nichols’ beating and death.
Nichols was stopped by police on Jan. 7 for an alleged traffic violation and was pulled out of his car by officers who used profanity, with at least one brandishing a gun. An officer hit Nichols with a stun gun, but Nichols ran away toward his nearby home, according to video footage released Jan. 27 by the city.
The officers, part of a crime-suppression team known as Scorpion, caught up with Nichols and punched him, kicked him and slugged him with a baton as he yelled for his mother.
After the beating, officers stood by and talked with one another as Nichols struggled with his injuries on the ground, video showed. One officer took photos of Nichols as he was propped up against an unmarked police car, video and records showed.
Nichols, 29, died in a hospital on Jan 10. He was Black, as are the five officers.
Nichols died of blows to the head, and the manner of death was homicide, an autopsy report released May 4 showed. The report described brain injuries as well as cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body
Mills’ motion for a separate trial notes that while the officers are all charged with the same crimes, Mills was not at the scene of the traffic stop. If tried with the other officers, Mills could be judged for actions he was not involved with at the traffic stop.
“This is likely to result in confusion for the jury and prejudices the movant’s right to a fair trial,” the motion said.
Mills’ lawyer, Blake Ballin, told reporters outside the courtroom that he intends to point out that Mills’ actions were different from those of the other officers.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Hagerman said prosecutors want to try all five defendants together and they are opposing the requests for separate trials.
Jones set a Sept. 15 hearing to address the severance motions. Jones also said he would issue an order at a later date on a media coalition’s push to have more video and records released in the case.
After Nichols’ death, Memphis police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis disbanded the Scorpion unit. Officers who were part of that team have been assigned to other units within the department. Authorities have released no evidence showing why the officers stopped Nichols.
Two other Memphis officers have been fired for their involvement in the beating and death. Another officer was allowed to retire before he could be fired.
The U.S. Department of Justice said July 27 that it is looking into how Memphis Police Department officers use force and conduct arrests in a “patterns and practices” investigation. The investigation also will look at whether the department in the majority-Black city engages in racially discriminatory policing.
In March, the Justice Department announced a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in the Memphis Police Department. Federal investigators also are looking specifically into Nichols’ arrest and death. And, Nichols’ mother has sued the city and its police chief over her son’s death.