By now the country knows Tyre Nichols’ name and what happened to him in the moments that led up to his death. Footage has been released to the public showing multiple Memphis police officers brutally attacking Nichols. Five of the officers involved in the incident are now facing criminal charges.
What do the charges mean? And, will anyone else be charged with crimes in the case?
What Happened During the Traffic Stop?
On January 7, 2023, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was on his way home from photographing a sunset at a local park when he was stopped by the Memphis Police Department. Police say they stopped Nichols for reckless driving.
Body cam footage from the incident shows what happened next. Police pulled Nichols from the car. After a struggle, police deployed pepper spray and a TASER. Nichols ran from the scene. Police later found Nichols and attempted to place him under arrest.
Video from the incident showed officers repeatedly hitting and kicking Nichols. After the abuse stopped, Nichols appeared to fall in and out of consciousness as emergency medical response workers arrived but failed to immediately administer care.
Nichols was eventually taken to a hospital, and three days later, he died from his injuries.
Nichols’ family says an independent autopsy found that Nichols suffered from “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”
So, who is going to be held accountable for Nichols’ death?
Five Police Officers Face Criminal Charges
After Nichols’ death, the Memphis Police Department announced that they were conducting an internal administrative investigation into the matter, and The U.S. Department of Justice announced it opened a civil rights investigation with the FBI. On January 20, five of the officers involved were fired.
Six days later, on January 26, each of the five fired officers were criminally charged.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Jr., Emmitt Martin III, and Justin Smith were arrested and held on bond, which ranged from $250,000 to $350,000.
The five police officers were officially charged with:
- Second-degree murder
- Aggravated assault
- Aggravated kidnapping
- Official misconduct
- Official oppression
Of the charges, second-degree murder is the most serious.
What Is Second-Degree Murder? What Are the Consequences?
Second-degree murder charges are a step below the most serious charge of first-degree murder. In Tennessee, first-degree murder is defined as the “intentional killing of another” and carries the possible punishment of life in prison or the death penalty.
Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told the AP he and RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, had pushed for first-degree murder charges but were satisfied with the indictment because it included additional charges, as reported by CBS News.
In Tennessee, second-degree murder is a Class A felony. It is defined as one of two types of killings:
- A knowing killing of another
- A killing of another caused by the unlawful sale of drugs
In Tennessee, second-degree murder is punishable by 15-60 years in prison and a fine up to $50,000.
Officers face these potential consequences in addition to the punishment that could arise for the other four charges.
Will Anyone Else Face Charges?
On January 30, the Memphis Police Department announced that two more officers were relieved of duty pending an investigation. One of the officers, Preston Hemphill was involved in the initial stop and reportedly fired a TASER at Nichols. Hemphill was not at the scene of the second incident where officers assaulted Nichols.
The name of the second officer involved in the investigation has not been released.
In addition to the investigation into other police officers involved with the incident, three fire department personnel have been fired, according to a statement from Memphis Fire Department.
Two first responders and a lieutenant — Robert Long, JaMichael Sandridge, and Michelle Whitaker — were terminated after an internal investigation concluded that the individuals “failed to conduct and adequate patient assessment of Mr. Nichols.”
While two people are under investigation and three more have been fired, no one else has been criminally charged in Nichols’ death outside of the five original officers at this time.
It doesn’t mean others won’t face criminal charges.
The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office is continuing its investigation. “We are looking at all individuals involved in the events leading up to, during, and after the beating of Tyre Nichols. This includes the officer present at the initial encounter who has not — so far — been charged,” they said in a statement.
Will There Be Civil Wrongful Death Charges?
Nichols’ family has retained civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Crump is a high-profile attorney who has represented many families in wrongful death cases involving deadly police use of force. He represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Ahmaud Arbery.
While no civil case has been filed at this time, it is likely that Crump and Nichols’ family will file a wrongful death lawsuit against one or more of the individuals or organizations involved in the incident.
Related: Examples of Wrongful Death Cases
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