MEMPHIS — The five former officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man pulled over for a traffic stop, pleaded not guilty on Friday to second-degree murder charges a month after police and traffic cameras captured the officers punching, kicking and striking Mr. Nichols with a baton.
The five men — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — also face additional charges, including official misconduct, official oppression and kidnapping. They were formally arraigned on Friday in a brief court proceeding, less than a month after top police officials fired the officers.
The officers had been part of a specialized street crime unit called Scorpion, which was formed in late 2021 with a mandate to help bring down rising crime rates. Driving muscle cars and wearing modified police uniforms and plainclothes, officers from the unit pulled over countless motorists for low-level violations, which regularly led to drug and gun seizures. The city’s mayor credited the unit with contributing to a drop in the city’s homicide rate. The unit was disbanded following Mr. Nichols’s death.
On Jan. 7, Mr. Nichols was stopped by Scorpion officers and pulled from his car in what the police initially characterized as a stop for reckless driving. He ran and when officers caught up to him, they began to beat him, according to video footage from the scene. At one point two officers held him up so a third could keep delivering baton blows. Mr. Nichols died in a hospital three days later.
During a brief court hearing on Friday morning, the officers quickly filed in and out of the courtroom as their lawyers entered not guilty pleas on their behalf. They wore masks, and their expressions were largely hidden.
“This case may take some time,” James Jones Jr., the criminal court judge, said as he urged the defendants “to be patient.”
In a hallway outside the courtroom after the hearing, a prosecutor in the case conveyed a sense of urgency.
“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,” Paul Hagerman, an assistant district attorney, said.
A defense lawyer for one of the officers told reporters that the officers were entitled to a fair trial. “It must be based on the facts and the law, and not the raw emotions our country is currently experiencing,” said Blake Ballin, who represents Mr. Mills.
A sixth officer has been fired, and others are facing internal departmental discipline as well.
Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane.
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