Judge shows willingness to release some records in Tyre Nichols beating death
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge on Friday continued to temporarily block the release of more video footage and records in the investigation into Tyre Nichols' death, but said he does want to make public information that would not interfere with the rights to a fair trial for five Memphis police officers facing charges.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge James Jones Jr. asked prosecutors to outline the information they think should and should not be be released to the public, and then give the list to defense attorneys. Jones set deadlines in June for prosecutors to provide defense lawyers the information from existing video footage and about 2,500 pages of documents that should be be released and for the defense to raise objections.
Prosecutor Paul Hagerman and defense attorneys agreed that most police personnel records that pre-dated Nichols’ beating can be released. But they both also agreed that the media must not get so called Garrity statements, which stem from investigative interviews given by the officers to Memphis Police Department administrators after Nichols' beating.
Garrity statements are not allowed to be used at trial against defendants.
“The intent of this court is that everything that can be released be released, and released timely,” Jones said.
Nichols, 29, died Jan. 10, three days after he was beaten by five officers who have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty.
Police video already released Jan. 27 showed five officers belonging to the Scorpion crime suppression unit punching, kicking and hitting Nichols with a baton as he yelled for his mother after a traffic stop.
Nichols' death sparked outrage around the world and intensified calls for police reform.
The five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills and Justin Smith — are Black. So was Nichols.
The city had planned to release on March 8 about 20 hours of additional video, audio and documents related to the arrest.
But the release was put on hold the next day after Jones granted a motion to delay from defense attorneys. The judge ordered that any release of video, audio, reports and city of Memphis employees' personnel files related to the Nichols investigation must wait “until such time as the state and the defendants have reviewed this information.”
A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, filed a motion to have the records released. The coalition argued that the judge's order was unwarranted and went against “the First Amendment's protections for newsgathering and publication, particularly in the context of criminal proceedings.”
The coalition also asked for the release of records related to the prior employment of Haley as a corrections officer. Those records also have been blocked by the court in a verbal order questioned by the coalition, and Haley's attorney has objected to their release.
Media coalition lawyer Paul McAdoo said the public has a right to receive information related to the personnel files of 13 police department employees and four fire department employees who have ties to the Nichols case.
“This matter is of serious concern to the public,” McAdoo said. “We want maximum access consistent with the right to fair trials for the defendants.”
Lawyers for the officers argued that the former officers’ rights to a fair trial must be recognized and protected pending trial.
Defense attorneys objected to the release of any information that is part of the ongoing investigation. That includes audio from body cameras that may contain statements made by officers that could be used against them, defense attorney Bill Massey said.
Massey said he has been seeking video from the initial stop, but police or prosecutors haven't indicated any such video exists.
Blake Ballin, Mills' lawyer, wrote in his motion that the media coalition's request “ignores the balancing act trial courts are tasked with when criminal prosecutions are subject to publicity.”
“The media's zealousness to report must be balanced with the assurance that the fates of the accused are not predetermined before a jury considers the proof," Ballin wrote.
After the beating, officers stood by and talked with one another as Nichols struggled with his injuries while he was on the ground, the video footage released in January showed. One officer also took photos of Nichols as he was propped up against an unmarked police car, video and other records showed.
Nichols was taken to a hospital in an ambulance that left the site of the beating 27 minutes after emergency medical technicians arrived, authorities said.
Police said Nichols had been suspected of reckless driving, but no verified evidence of a traffic violation has emerged in public documents or in video footage. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said she has seen no evidence justifying the stop or the officers’ response. She disbanded the Scorpion unit after Nichols’ death, but some officers from that team have been assigned to other units.
Nichols died of blows to the head, and the manner of death was homicide, an autopsy report released May 4 showed. The report described brain injuries, cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body.
In addition to the officers fired and charged with murder, one white officer who was involved in the initial traffic stop has been fired. That officer will not face charges. Another officer, who has not been identified, also has been fired. An additional officer retired before he could be fired.
Three Memphis Fire Department emergency medical technicians were fired for failing to render aid to Nichols. Two Shelby County Sheriff's Office deputies who went to the location after the beating were suspended for five days for policy violations.
Also Friday, a Nashville-based commission that enforces standards for police approved a recommendation that proceedings to bar Bean from serving in state law enforcement be suspended until his legal case is resolved.
Associated Press reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed from Nashville, Tennessee.