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A judge blocks the release of additional footage of the beating death of Tyre Nichols

A candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols in Memphis is held in January.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A candlelight vigil for Tyre Nichols in Memphis is held in January.

Updated March 8, 2023 at 3:44 PM ET

A judge in Tennessee has blocked the release of some 20 hours of additional video and audio recordings of the beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers in January.

Those recordings, along with other reports and personnel files related to an administrative investigation by Memphis city officials, had been slated to be released Wednesday.

But Shelby County Criminal Court Judge James Jones Jr. intervened to delay the planned release of the recordings and documents after a last-minute motion by a defense attorney for one of the five former officers charged with second-degree murder in Nichols' death.

The records will be held until prosecutors and defense lawyers have been able to review them, the court order says. It is unclear when that will be.

"The motion and order filed today are the result of the need to balance the interests of transparency with the defendants' right to a fair trial," said Blake Ballin, the defense lawyer who filed the motion. "Police department investigations often uncover evidence that is irrelevant, prejudicial, misleading or inadmissible."

In a statement, the Shelby County District Attorney's Office said it had supported officials' decision to release the additional video footage.

But prosecutors did not object to the delay on documents and "other material" from the administrative investigation. "Our office needs to review it carefully to ensure it doesn't prejudice the defendant or jeopardize our prosecution," prosecutors said.

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was stopped by Memphis police as he was driving near his home on the evening of Jan. 7. Police claimed the traffic stop was for reckless driving; documents show that officers never explained the reason for the stop to Nichols.

Nichols attempted to flee on foot, but officers soon caught him and beat him severely. He died in a hospital three days later, leaving behind a 4-year-old son.

Soon after his death, the Memphis Police Department fired five officers involved in the beating: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, all of whom were part of a specialized unit called SCORPION, which has since been disbanded. All five former officers are Black.

Each of the five faces several felony charges, including second-degree murder, aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping. All have pleaded not guilty.

In total, 13 Memphis police officers were subject to the administrative investigation by city officials, the city's chief legal officer, Jennifer Sink, said at a city council meeting Tuesday.

In addition to the five SCORPION unit officers, another two officers have been fired, city officials said this week. Another five have been suspended, and one retired before a hearing could be conducted. Internal charges against the remaining two were dropped.

The ruling comes hours after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would review the Memphis Police Department's use of force and de-escalation policies, following a request by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis.

The review will cover "policies, practices, training, data and processes related to MPD's use of force, de-escalation and specialized units," the DOJ said in an announcement Wednesday. A public report with its findings and recommendations will follow.

"The department is also pleased to be able to fulfill Memphis's request for technical assistance on the police department's use of force and de-escalation policies, as well as the use of specialized units," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

Separately, the DOJ said it will also review the use of specialized units within law enforcement departments nationwide, like the Memphis Police Department's SCORPION Unit, the group of some 40 officers charged with combating violent street crime that was disbanded soon after Nichols' death.

"The Justice Department has heard from police chiefs across the country who are assessing the use of specialized units and, where used, appropriate management, oversight and accountability for such units," Gupta said.

Additional reporting by WKNO's Katie Riordan in Memphis. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.