Court Cases Now in Limbo in Wake of Memphis Police Abuses

MEMPHIS — The arrest of five Memphis police officers charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tyre Nichols could lead to a cascade of criminal cases being dismissed and convictions appealed, as defense attorneys in the city weigh challenging reports and testimony brought by the now-defunct police unit of which the officers were a part.

The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office said on Thursday that it would review any cases and convictions involving the five officers, though the office did not offer specifics because of the continuing investigation. The five officers were also added to an internal list of police officials across the county accused of being dishonest or facing criminal charges, a classification that could lead prosecutors to drop any cases involving their testimony.

But some defense attorneys are also working to compile a roster of the aggressive Scorpion unit that the five officers belonged to, which could imperil hundreds of cases across the city. From its inception in late 2021 to January 2022, when Mayor Jim Strickland hailed the unit’s work in his annual State of the City speech, the unit made 566 arrests.

That unit was disbanded after the death of Mr. Nichols last month, as city and police officials grappled with the behavior of the five officers who violently kicked and beat the 29-year-old FedEx worker and photographer and with the unit’s overall record of aggression, intimidation and brutality. The Scorpion unit had roughly 40 members, who handled an estimated thousands of cases.

The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

A makeshift memorial for Mr. Nichols at the corner where he was fatally beaten by officers in Memphis.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

“Just because someone served in the Scorpion unit doesn’t mean they did anything wrong,” said Mike Working, a criminal defense lawyer and the former president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “But it’s worth a second look, at minimum.”

Mr. Working said he was in a Facebook Messenger chat with around 50 other defense lawyers based in Memphis, where the group was combing through affidavits filed against their clients to put together a list of former and current members of the unit and use that information to challenge any active case.

The Death of Tyre Nichols

Five Memphis police officers have been charged in the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man, after a traffic stop escalated into a brutal beating.

  • Scorpion Unit: The specialized street crime unit — one of several that U.S. cities have assembled to fight a new surge in crime — was disbanded after five of its officers were charged with murder in Mr. Nichols’s death.
  • Sending a Photo: After the officers beat Mr. Nichols, one of them took a picture of him, handcuffed and bloodied, and texted it to at least five people, according to documents that detailed the officers’ actions.
  • Police Report: An official police report written hours after the beating of Mr. Nichols offered a starkly different account of police violence than what videos had shown.
  • A Flawed System?: A Times investigation into the officers accused of killing Mr. Nichols reveals the challenges of preventing police brutality.

He argued that Steve Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, and his office should also go beyond reviewing the cases involving the charged officers, which he described as “the basic minimum required for any semblance of justice.”

“Everyone in Memphis now knows that the Scorpion unit, which jumped out at citizens from unmarked vehicles wearing balaclavas, was using unreasonable search and seizures,” Mr. Working said. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said the office was open to reviewing other cases involving other members of the unit if asked by a defense lawyer.

The addition of the five officers — Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean and Desmond Mills Jr. — to the private list maintained by the district attorney’s office essentially ensures that their credibility could be challenged in any case they were involved in. The updated list, known as a Giglio list, after the court case that requires prosecutors to release information that could undermine the credibility of the police and other witnesses, was reviewed by The New York Times and previously reported by WREG.

The department has also fired a sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, who has not been charged; on Thursday, it asked that a state agency bar him from ever working as a police officer in Tennessee. In internal documents, officials said Mr. Hemphill yelled profane threats before using a Taser on Mr. Nichols while he was running in the middle of a street, which can be heard and seen on body camera footage released by the Police Department.

Mr. Hemphill acknowledged that while he initially said that Mr. Nichols had been stopped for reckless driving, he did not actually see Mr. Nichols recklessly driving, according to the documents. Despite his initial testimony, Mr. Hemphill also did not see Mr. Nichols reach for another officer’s gun during the confrontation, the documents said, and the video footage does not show Mr. Nichols fighting back against the officers, as they reported.

A lawyer for Mr. Hemphill did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday. Lawyers for at least one of the police officers, Emmitt Martin III, have asked the Memphis Police Department to retain all video footage related to Mr. Nichols before he was pulled over, according to court documents filed this week, indicating a possible effort to justify the stop that led to the beating.

Officers who were terminated after Mr. Nichols was beaten. Clockwise from top left are Preston Hemphill, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr.Credit…Memphis Police Department, via Reuters

“Those video recordings are needed to provide a factual determination of the reason for the stop and to shed light on the approach taken by officers during that initial stop,” said William D. Massey, an attorney for Mr. Martin. “This information is the starting point to giving a complete account of events on Jan. 7.”

Still, despite the abusive behavior both in Mr. Nichols’s case and by the Scorpion unit overall, defense lawyers disagreed on just how many cases and sentences could be dismissed. Mr. Working said it was possible hundreds could be challenged and eventually dropped or dismissed.

“If there’s 40 officers, do the math; they could be arresting up to 60 guys a week,” he said. “I think it’s conservative to say there’s two to three hundred open cases. The teams were out there prowling like predators arresting people.”

Josh Corman, a criminal defense lawyer and former Shelby County prosecutor, was more cautious.

“There’s not going to be a blanket response of, ‘Anything that the Scorpion unit touched, all cases dismissed,’” he said. “It’s going to be a case-by-case basis, but there’s going to be stricter scrutiny and those cases are going to be reviewed pretty intensely.”

Mr. Corman said he had specific cases that he was examining because of the unit’s involvement, adding what happened to Mr. Nichols had prompted more people to come forward about their treatment by members of the unit.

“This didn’t seem to be like an isolated thing where people just lost their cool and blew up — it seems to be something that was almost business as usual, and it was just another shift of work,” he said. “Living in the community and working in the criminal justice system, that is obviously very troubling.”

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