MEMPHIS, Tenn — Three former Memphis police officers accused of fatally beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop should have separate trials because they have different levels of responsibility than two other former colleagues who also are charged with murder in the highly publicized case, defense lawyers said Friday.
Lawyers for Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills and Justin Smith have filed motions to sever their cases from Demetrius Haley and Emmitt Martin, arguing that they cannot receive fair trials if they all face a jury together for the violent beating of Nichols on Jan. 7 that was caught on police video.
All five former members of a Memphis Police Department crime-suppression unit have pleaded not guilty to state charges including second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in the beating of Nichols, who was punched, kicked and slugged with a police baton after he fled a traffic stop during which he was hit with a stun gun and pepper spray.
Nichols, 29, died in a hospital three days after the beating. An autopsy report showed Nichols died from blows to the head and the manner of death was homicide. The report described brain injuries, cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body.
The five officers, all of whom are Black, were fired shortly after the beating, which was 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.
In addition to the state charges, the five officers were indicted Tuesday on federal civil rights charges alleging they used excessive force and lied about the beating. They have pleaded not guilty.
The five former officers were part of the so-called Scorpion unit, a crime-suppression team that police officials disbanded after Nichols' beating.
During a Friday hearing in state court, Judge James Jones Jr. heard from lawyers from the three former officers who are seeking separate trials.
John Keith Perry, the lawyer for Bean, and Martin Zummach, Smith's attorney, said neither officer was at the initial traffic stop, when police say Nichols was pulled over on an allegation of reckless driving. Police have since said they have found no evidence that Nichols was actually driving recklessly.
Nichols ran away from officers who tried to restrain him outside of his car, authorities said. He ran toward his nearby home and called out for his mother as he was pummeled just steps from his house.
Nichols was "a helpless victim" as he was hit by Haley, Martin and Mills while being held by Bean and Smith, prosecutors said in a court filing.
The lawyers said Bean and Smith merely responded to a call about a suspect who was running away from police after he had been hit with a stun gun and pepper sprayed. Bean tackled Nichols, and he and Smith were just doing their job as they tried to get Nichols' hands behind his back so that he could be handcuffed, the lawyers said.
"Obviously, he's not going over there to kill anybody," Zummach said of Smith.
Prosecutors oppose the requests for separate proceedings, arguing that the five officers can be treated fairly if tried together.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Hagerman said the five officers were not charged for actions from the traffic stop. Rather, they are responsible for what they did at the the second location, where Nichols was beaten and left to struggle with his injuries as he sat slumped against a police car, Hagerman said.
"We have all watched this crime happen together," Hagerman said, referring to police video that's been released to the public. "Five people, at the same time, wearing the same uniforms, doing the same things."
Jones set an Oct. 5 hearing to deliver his ruling on the motions for separate trials.