Police officers' trial on civil rights charges in Tyre Nichols death to stay in Memphis, judge says

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The federal trial of four former Memphis police officers charged with civil rights violations in the beating death of Tyre Nichols will be held in the city, a judge ruled Thursday.

During a hearing in federal court, U.S. District Judge Mark S. Norris denied motions filed by defense attorneys to move the trial out of the city or bring in a jury from elsewhere in Tennessee. The attorneys argued that intense news media coverage and the public release of video related to the beating would make it impossible to seat a fair and impartial jury in Memphis, where Nichols died in January 2023.

A document filed by lawyers for one of the officers, Emmitt Martin, said the trial atmosphere in Memphis has been "utterly corrupted by press coverage.” Norris disagreed, saying media coverage and the video release won't bias a Memphis jury against the officers. The judge did say that defense attorneys can file another change of venue motion after potential jurors are questioned about their knowledge of the case.

The police video shows officers yanking Nichols out of his car during a traffic stop on Jan. 7, 2023, after he is pulled over for alleged reckless driving. Nichols is pepper-sprayed and hit with a stun gun, but he manages to get away and run toward his house nearby. Officers catch up with Nichols and punch him, kick him and hit him with a police baton as he yells for his mother, the video shows.

Nichols died three days later at a hospital. The cause of death was blows to the head, according to an autopsy report, which ruled the death a homicide.

Nichols was Black. The five officers also are Black. Memphis’ police chief has said the department couldn’t substantiate any reason for officers to pull Nichols over. The case sparked outrage around the world and intensified calls for police reform in the city and the U.S.

Martin, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith were fired after Nichols’ death. They were indicted in September on federal charges that they deprived Nichols of his rights through excessive force and failure to intervene, and obstructed justice through witness tampering. They also have been charged in state court with second-degree murder. The state trial has been delayed until the federal trial is complete.

Mills pleaded guilty to federal charges in November. He also intends to plead guilty in state court and could testify against his four ex-colleagues, who have pleaded not guilty in both cases, his lawyer Blake Ballin has said. The federal trial is scheduled to start Sept. 9.

The criminal case is separate from the U.S. Department of Justice’s “patterns and practices” investigation into how Memphis officers use force and conduct arrests, and whether the department in the majority-Black city engages in racially discriminatory policing.

The Justice Department also has announced a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units within Memphis police.

Nichols’ mother has filed a $550 million lawsuit against the city and its police chief.