Defense lawyers in Tyre Nichols case want jury to hear evidence about items found in his car

A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday about whether the jury at the trial of four former Memphis police officers charged in the beating death of Tyre Nichols should hear evidence that Nichols had a hallucinogenic drug and stolen credit cards in his car when he was pulled over that night.

During a hearing, lawyers for the four officers said the discovery made by investigators after the January 2023 beating and discussed in court documents explains why Nichols didn’t immediately pull over when an officer tried to stop him. They said it also explains why Nichols later ran away after officers yanked him from his car and hit him with a stun gun and pepper spray while he resisted their attempts to handcuff him.

Five officers later caught up with Nichols, who was just steps from his house when they punched, kicked and hit him with a baton, actions that were caught on police video. Officers were seen milling about and talking with each other as Nichols struggled with his injuries while sitting on the ground, propped up against a car.

Nichols, 29, died three days after the beating. The case sparked outrage around the world and intensified calls for police reform in the city and the U.S.

Emmitt Martin, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith 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.

Nichols was Black. The officers also are Black.

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 has said. The federal trial is scheduled to start Sept. 9. The state trial has been delayed indefinitely.

The lawyers only spoke generally about the car evidence during Tuesday’s hearing. However, Smith’s lawyer said in a previous court filing that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s inventory of Nichols’ car made after the beating showed that he had psilocybin, the hallucinatory compound in psychedelic mushrooms.

The lawyer, Martin Zummach, said the former officers’ attorneys learned from a review of the inventory that Nichols had stolen credit cards, debit cards and photo identifications in his car. Zummach made the claims in a court filing joining another officer’s request for prosecutors to give them Nichols’ cellphone records.

The TBI hasn’t publicly said what was found in the car, and the agency said that information is confidential under state law. But Zummach said the TBI’s evidence was presented to defense lawyers.

An autopsy found that Nichols died of blows to the head and ruled his death a homicide. But the report does not say whether Nichols had psilocybin in his system when he was beaten.

Prosecutor Forrest Christian told U.S. District Judge Mark Norris that the jury should not be allowed to learn about the evidence found in the car, citing an established practice in police use-of-force cases that juries can only consider information the officers had at the time the force was used to determine if it was justified.

The officers did not know about the items found in Nichols’ car, and he did not have the items with him when he was violently beaten, Christian said. So, the effort to have the jury hear about the items amounts to investigating the victim after his death and speculating as to what was on Nichols’ mind while he was being punched and kicked, the prosecutor said.

“It’s just a character attack,” Christian said.

Defense attorneys argued that the evidence is relevant because it explains why he evaded officers and was able to resist attempts by the officers to subdue him, while corroborating the officers’ perceptions of Nichols’ demeanor. After the beating, officers speculated that Nichols was on drugs, which they believed influenced his behavior, the attorneys said.

Michael Stengel, the lawyer for Haley, said the former officer isn’t using “20-20 hindsight” to justify his actions. Stengel said the car evidence “completes the picture” and is “inextricably entwined” with what took place.

The defense attorneys argued that keeping the evidence away from the jury hurts the officers’ right to a fair trial.

“Let the jury have all the facts,” Zummach said.

Norris, the judge, said he would rule later on the issue. He is also considering motions to dismiss or sever the charges.


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