The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office will review all cases handled by the five Memphis police officers who are accused of beating and killing Tyre Nichols, which could lead to charges being dropped in droves.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy did not specify how many cases were being reviewed but said the review includes both active and closed cases as part of the office’s plan to review “all prior cases.”
“This is still an active and ongoing investigation,” the office said in a statement Thursday
Former Memphis Police officers Demetrius Haley, Tadarrius Bean, Justin Smith, Desmond Mills and Emmitt Martin III are facing multiple criminal charges, including second-degree murder, for the beating death of Nichols, which has sparked national outrage and calls for police reform.
The officers were all part of a specialized unit called SCORPION that made a significant number of arrests since 2021.
Local defense attorneys said prosecutors will face tough decisions with cases involving any of the five officers, as their criminal charges bring conflict of interest and credibility concerns.
Documents provided by the district attorney’s office show that all five officers have been added to the county’s “Giglio list,” which is a list of law enforcement officers with credibility issues.
Cases already being dropped
Memphis-based defense attorney Brandon Hall said he was in court on Wednesday when he saw a prosecutor drop one case involving some of the officers in question. He said he expects more to come.
Hall said one of the biggest concerns is a conflict of interest if the officers are allowed to testify as witnesses in other cases where they’ve made arrests, as they could be seen as trying to testify favorably for prosecutors in return for better outcomes in their own criminal cases.
“There’s no way (prosecutors) can ethically bring in the officers as witnesses,” he said. “It would be a major conflict of interest.”
Chris Slobogin, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Vanderbilt University, said the officers’ actions in the Nichols case could compromise credibility for all officers who have served on the unit since it speaks to the unit’s culture.
“It’s going to severely damage the credibility of the officers in this unit,” he said. “I could see prosecutors washing their hands of any cases involving this unit unless it’s a serious violent crime.”
Defense attorney Josh Corman, who previously served as a Shelby County prosecutor for five years, said prosecutors would likely be reluctant to move forward with a case unless they have compelling evidence beyond the officer’s testimony.
“I think it would be a nightmare for any prosecutor to use them as a witness,” he said.
SCORPION unit made hundreds of arrests
It’s unclear how many cases would be affected, but Mayor Jim Strickland in his State of the City address last year said the roughly 40-member SCORPION unit made nearly 600 arrests just in the first three months after it formed in late 2021. The unit was quickly disbanded following Nichols’s death.
SCORPION, an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, consisted of four, 10-officer teams to combat violent crime in Memphis.
Specialized units are common for large police departments, but many have sparked controversy in recent years due to aggressive tactics that violate constitutional rights and have led to needless deaths.
While SCORPION was tasked with fighting violent crime, officers in many incidents would stop people for minor officers, according to court documents and defense attorneys.
Officers said they stopped Nichols for reckless driving but the department later said it was not able to substantiate those claims.
Prosecutors typically drop bad cases, lawyer says
Hall said he’s had at least 50 clients who have had run-ins with SCORPION unit officers. Pulling drivers over for minor offenses is a hallmark of their operations, he said.
“They’ll stop people for improper tag illumination, seatbelt violations, reckless driving, window tint is a big one,” he said. “They’ll say they smell marijuana and as soon as they say that, they don’t need a search warrant. That gets them into the car immediately.”
By the time it gets to court, Hall said prosecutors will typically drop all or most of the charges for clients in some of his more minor drug cases involving SCORPION-related arrests.
“I have to compliment the DA’s office especially the drug unit because they do a great job of smelling (bad cases) and working it out if the officers are doing stuff that may be questionable in the streets,” he said.
As for pending cases, Hall said he has at least one client who will be affected if the district attorney decides to drop cases involving the five officers.
The client is a “career criminal” who had been working to turn his life around when he was stopped by SCORPION officers, who found a gun in the car, Hall said.
The man hadn’t been arrested in 10 years but is now facing at least two decades in prison for a gun charge due to his lengthy record.
But that could soon change.
“If this happens for him, it will be a major break,” Hall said.
Reach reporter Kelly Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach her on Twitter at @KellyPuenteTN. Criminal justice reporter Lucas Finton contributed to this report.