The Washington Post

Family lawyer: Memphis man was ‘human piñata’ for police

- BY ROBERT KLEMKO

MEMPHIS — Tyre Nichols’s mother leaped from her seat and left the room the moment she heard her son’s voice on body-camera footage that shows the brutal police beating she is certain led to his death.

His stepfather stayed. Rodney Wells said he watched Nichols cry out for his mother as officers pummeled him less than 100 yards from his home. Lawyers for the family said the 29-year-old was kicked, punched and Tasered.

“The brutality of it all, that’s the most jarring part,” Wells said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “It was just so brutal. He didn’t deserve that.”

Nichols, who had a 4-year-old son, was pronounced dead in a hospital three days after he was arrested by five Memphis police officers, all of whom have since been fired by the department.

Family members have said Nichols died of kidney failure and cardiac arrest on Jan. 10, three days after his encounter with the officers. A police spokespers­on said officers pulled Nichols over for alleged reckless driving and Nichols fled on foot before he was ultimately arrested.

After watching the footage with his lawyers and city officials, Rodney Wells said he believed his stepson ran because he feared for his life.

“What I saw on the video today was horrific. No father or mother should see what we had to see today,” Wells said, adding that the family wants the officers to be charged with first-degree murder. “Anything short of that, we will not accept.”

The department has said it would release video footage of the arrest to the public after the family had a chance to view it, but has not provided a more specific timeline. Attorneys for the family said Monday that they had agreed to a delay of one to two weeks at the request of police.

“A premature release could adversely impact the criminal investigat­ion and the judicial process,” Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a statement.

At the news conference, the family urged supporters to keep their protests peaceful and not resort to violence when the video is eventually released.

Nichols was an amateur photograph­er and a skateboard­er who, like his stepfather, worked the afternoon-evening shift at Fedex. They regularly came home at 7 p.m., on their lunch break, the family’s lawyers said, for a meal home-cooked by Nichols’s mother, Rowvaughn Wells.

Wells said her son suffered from Crohn’s disease and weighed no more than 145 pounds. “Nobody’s perfect, but he was damn near. My son loved me to death,” she said. “My son didn’t do no drugs. He didn’t kill no one. He didn’t like confrontat­ion.”

The Nichols family has spent the days since his death in protest, rallying demands for the department to release surveillan­ce and body-camera footage and calling for the officers to be criminally prosecuted. They have shared a photo of Nichols’s battered face as he lay in a hospital bed before his death.

The Department of Justice and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigat­ion are conducting separate investigat­ions into the arrest.

Attorney Ben Crump, who is representi­ng the family, said the footage he saw Monday reminded him of the Los Angeles Police Department beating of Rodney King more than three decades ago — an attack that was also captured on video and that sparked widespread protests and changed the national conversati­on about police reform. “It is appalling,” Crump said. “It is deplorable. It is heinous. It is violent.”

Co-counsel Antonio Romanucci described Nichols as a “human piñata for these police officers.” As he spoke, Rowvaughn Wells broke into tears and cried out, “My God!”

As the police chief prepared the family to watch the video Monday, the family’s lawyer said, she told them: “I’m not proud of what you’re about to see.”

Rowvaughn Wells said she simply could not bear to stay in the conference room as the footage played, capturing the beating from the vantage point of multi

ple cameras.

“I just lost my child,” she said in an interview. “When I walked in that room and sat there and heard his voice, that just did something to me and I had to get out. I’ve already seen what they did to him. I don’t need to see how they did it.”

The Memphis police department announced the firing of the five officers involved in the Nichols arrest on Friday evening — a relatively quick decision compared with most administra­tive inquiries that take place after deaths in police custody in the United States. The department’s investigat­ion found the officers — all of whom are Black — used excessive force and failed to intervene and render aid, violating department policy.

The officers — Tadarrius Bean,

Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — each joined the department within the past five years.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen D. Camper (D), whose district includes much of Memphis, praised what she described as Davis’s “swift, decisive” action to fire the officers. The revelation that all five are Black has triggered complicate­d emotions, she said.

“I think the citizens of Memphis were surprised,” Camper said. “They were deeply saddened by it, and to some degree people were shocked because of whatever their own perception­s may have been. How that ultimately changes the reaction, I don’t know.”

Crump said he felt a responsibi­lity to fight for the constituti­onal rights of Americans who are injured by police regardless of the race of the officer.

“What I have come to learn from doing this civil rights work against excessive-force policing is that it is not the race of the police officer that is the determinab­le factor of the amount of excessive force that would be exerted. It is the race of the citizen,” Crump said. “Yet again, we’re seeing evidence of what happens to Black and Brown people from simple traffic stops … You should not be killed because of a simple traffic stop. And we have to say to America: How you would treat our White brothers and sisters when you have a traffic stop with them, well, treat us Black and Brown citizens the same way.”

For Wells, learning the officers’ race was devastatin­g and perplexing.

“It makes it even harder to swallow, because they are Black and they know what we have to go through,” she said. “I don’t understand why they had to do this to my son.”

“The brutality of it all, that’s the most jarring part. It was just so brutal. He didn’t deserve that.” Rodney Wells, Tyre Nichols’s stepfather

 ?? BRANDON Dill For The Washington POST ?? Rowvaughn Wells, second from left, becomes emotional during a news conference after she viewed footage of the violent police interactio­n that led to the death of her son, Tyre Nichols.
BRANDON Dill For The Washington POST Rowvaughn Wells, second from left, becomes emotional during a news conference after she viewed footage of the violent police interactio­n that led to the death of her son, Tyre Nichols.

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