Tyre Nichols, 29, was beaten by Memphis police officers for three minutes on Jan. 7 after the officers had stopped him for reckless driving, lawyers for his family said on Monday. The stop escalated into a violent confrontation that ended with Mr. Nichols hospitalized in critical condition. Three days later, he died.
The circumstances of the traffic stop remain murky, as officials have disclosed little information. All five police officers involved were arrested on Thursday and faced several felony charges, including second-degree murder. But Mr. Nichols’s death has stoked anger and frustration in Memphis as his family, their lawyers and activists seek answers.
Memphis is now waiting for the release of video footage of the stop, which city officials have vowed to make public and plan to release sometime after 6 p.m. on Friday, said Steve Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney. Mr. Nichols’s family and their lawyers watched the video on Monday. In it, they could see that Mr. Nichols, who was Black, had been pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun and restrained, Antonio Romanucci, one of the lawyers, told reporters after watching the footage, which amounts to almost an hour.
The police, in an initial statement, said that a “confrontation occurred” as the officers, all of whom are also Black, approached Mr. Nichols’s vehicle on the evening of Jan. 7 and he ran away. There was then “another confrontation” as officers arrested him, the statement said.
“He was a human piñata for those police officers,” Mr. Romanucci said Monday, standing with Mr. Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells. “Not only was it violent, it was savage.”
An independent autopsy found that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary findings released by his family’s lawyers on Tuesday.
What is the status of the investigation into Mr. Nichols’s death?
The officers who were involved were arrested and indicted with multiple felony charges, including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Second-degree murder alone could be punishable by up to 60 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000, even if a defendant did not strike a blow that, by itself, would be fatal.
The arrests followed an internal investigation by the Memphis Police Department that foundthe officers used excessive force and failed to intervene or provide help.
Last week, the department announced that the five officers involved — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — had been fired. The officers had all joined the department between 2017 and 2020.
“This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane,” Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, said in a video statement ahead of the charges. “I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights, as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video.”
The Memphis Fire Department has said that two of its employees who responded to the scene have also been “relieved of duty” while it conducts its own internal investigation.
Lawyers representing the officers cautioned the public against rushing to judgment and said they were not sure what proof prosecutors have.
“There is no way no one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” said William Massey, who is representing Mr. Martin III.
The Memphis Police Association, the union representing the city’s officers, declined to comment on the firings. “The citizens of Memphis, and, more importantly, the family of Mr. Nichols deserve to know the complete account of the events leading up to his death” and what may have contributed to it, Lt. Essica Cage-Rosario, the union’s president, said in a statement.
Mr. Nichols’s family had pushed for the officers to be charged with first-degree murder but saw the charges as an encouraging development.
“That these five officers are being held criminally accountable for their deadly and brutal actions gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre,” the family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said in a statement. He added, “This tragedy meets the absolute definition of a needless and unnecessary death.”
Who was Tyre Nichols?
Mr. Nichols worked the second shift at a FedEx facility, the shipping company that is a major employer and corporate presence in Memphis. Every evening, around 7 p.m., he would return to his mother’s house for his “lunch” break, according to his family. He had worked there for roughly nine months.
He had a 4-year-old son. He went to the same Starbucks most mornings around 8:30 a.m., his mother said. He often went to Shelby Farms, a sprawling public park just outside Memphis. He photographed sunsets and skateboarded, a passion that he had had since he was 6 — one his stepfather thought he was too old for. “You’ve got to put that skateboard down,” Mr. Wells remembered telling Mr. Nichols not long before he died. “You’ve got a full-time job now.”
His mother said that Mr. Nichols had her name tattooed on his arm. “That made me proud,” she said. “Most kids don’t put their mom’s name. My son was a beautiful soul.”
According to the family’s lawyers, Mr. Nichols told the officers during the Jan. 7 events that he just wanted to go home, and in what they believed were his final words, he called out for his mother. Her home was about 100 yards from where he was beaten, the lawyers said.
When will the video of the incident be released?
City officials have promised transparency and Mr. Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, said the footage of the beating would be released to the public sometime after 6 p.m. on Friday. The footage will amount to nearly an hour from police body cameras and stationary cameras, with limited redactions, such as blurring out the faces of people who are not city employees.
“People will be able to see the entire incident from beginning to end,” Mr. Mulroy said.
Officials anticipate an angry public reaction to the footage, which has been repeatedly called brutal, and Memphis is bracing.
But Mr. Nichols’s family has urged the community to give officials time to finish their investigation, and urged the public to protest peacefully in respond to the video’s release, even if they find it disturbing or infuriating.
“That’s not going to bring him back,” Rodney Wells, Nichols’s stepfather, said this week.
On Monday, they and their lawyers shared some of what they had seen on the video.
“His mother couldn’t get through the first minute of it,” Mr. Crump, the family’s lawyer, said in a news conference. “What we can tell you about the video is that it is appalling, it is deplorable, it is heinous.”
Mr. Crump said Mr. Nichols had pleaded with officers for an explanation of why he had been stopped before things escalated.
“‘What did I do?’ — that was his question,” Mr. Crump said. “‘What did I do?’”
Jessica Jaglois and Laura Faith Kebede contributed reporting.