Lawyers for five officers said they pleaded “not guilty” Friday to charges that they murdered Tyre Nichols, a young Black man who died after a police beating in Memphis, Tennessee last month.
Videos of the incident showed the five officers, who are all Black, repeatedly kicking and punching Nichols in a traffic stop close to his home on January 7, three days before he died in hospital.
Attorneys representing the five, all of whom were fired by the Memphis police department, appeared in a brief initial plea hearing for an explosive trial that has drawn national attention to the issues of police abuse and mistreatment of African Americans.
Judge James Jones acknowledged those sensitivities as he warned the defendants and the family of Nichols present in court that the trial could be long and involve “high emotions,” and urged “civility” for all those involved.
“Everyone involved wants this case to be concluded as quickly as possible. But it’s important for you all to understand that the state of Tennessee as well as each one of these defendants have an absolute right to a fair trial.”
“And I will not allow any behavior that could jeopardize that right,” he said.
Saying that there is a large amount of evidence to be collected, Jones set the next court date for May 1.
Nichols, 29, was stopped by members of a special police anti-crime squad called the Scorpion Unit in Memphis on January 7 for an alleged traffic violation, according to police.
The reason the officers stopped him remains unknown.
Nichols was beaten viciously by police, in scenes recorded in body camera and security camera footage that triggered national outrage when it was made public late last month.
Besides the five officers charged with second degree murder, a sixth one has been fired and other officials, including three firefighters, suspended.
Nichols was buried on February 1 in a ceremony attended by Vice president Kamala Harris, who said his beating “was not in pursuit of public safety.”
“This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe,” she told the gathering at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
The next day, in a meeting with Black lawmakers, President Joe Biden urged Congress to put through stalled police reforms, citing Nichols’ death.
“My hope is, this dark memory spurs some action that we’ve all been fighting for,” Biden said.