MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The blows kept landing, one after another. Pain clouded DuPree Lytle's mind as he began blacking out, his thoughts drifting to his family, his church — his future.
Especially his future.
The more he reconsiders that day — July 4, 2011 — when a group of Memphis Police Department officers allegedly beat him and a friend as they lay handcuffed, his greatest fear wasn't pain or injury but what was ahead.
As it turned out, his one arrest would be wiped clean by an internal police investigation that found six officers in violation of MPD's excessive force policy. The department's investigation painted an ugly picture:
Lytle, now 25, was beaten so severely his face was swollen and bruised, a tooth broken.
His friend, Michael McDonald, suffered a broken nose, damaged eye socket and an assortment of other disfiguring injuries.
Despite the findings of the internal investigation, prosecutors declined to charge the officers with crimes, finding too little evidence to support indictments. So the two men, both former University of Memphis football players, are pursuing monetary damages against MPD in a lawsuit still working its way through the federal courts years after that bloody encounter south of Beale Street.
Claims of police misconduct are hardly rare in Memphis. But an investigation by The Commercial Appeal found this case unique because it forces into public view a long-standing but seldom discussed practice within MPD euphemistically known as 'choir practice' — a ritual where officers collect in precinct parking lots after their shifts to drink and dissect the day's events.
Hours earlier in a bloody hotel stairwell, several of the officers cradled officer Timothy Warren as he lay dying from a gunshot wound to the head.
Consoling one another, they huddled in a precinct lot at Second and Linden. Dressed in street clothes or partial uniforms, off-duty officers had access to beer, whiskey and vodka.
Attorneys differ sharply on whether the officers cited for excessive force drank alcohol before the incident. But it's clear the collision was fueled by a volatile mix of grief, anger and raw emotion.
Suspended for 20 days and demoted to sergeant after the incident, Robert Skelton, 49, said he regrets there was alcohol on city property, but vehemently disagrees with the conclusions of MPD's Inspectional Services Bureau (ISB). His officers were attacked, he said; they acted in self-defense.
"If you're going to fight the police," he said, "we're going to fight you back."
McDonald and Lytle spent that evening with friends at the Superior Bar on Beale Street, dancing and drinking into the early morning of Monday, July 4. It was the kind of carefree night the two hard-charging former teammates had come to relish since meeting two years earlier at U of M.
McDonald almost didn't make it to Memphis. Working a year-and-a-half at a gas station after high school in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, he had brushes with the law. But when his high school coach pointed him to Lackawanna Community College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he became a second-team junior college All-American at defensive end, later playing in 11 of 12 games during his single season at the U of M in 2009.
Lytle grew up here, one of eight children born to Carla and Quinton Lytle, a popular Memphis pastor at Downline Ministries.
DuPree Lytle was popular in his own right: A 2009 graduate of Evangelical Christian School, where he starred in football, basketball and track, he enrolled that fall at the U of M as an invited walk-on to the football team.
He was drawn to McDonald by more than football. They both majored in criminal justice studies. They wanted to be cops.
"I've wanted to be a police officer since I was a little boy," Lytle said. "Police officers were almost the closest thing to a superhero."
But when the two friends finally walked off Beale around 4 a.m. that night with a circle of companions, their view of police and authority, and their own sense of security, would shatter. As they headed to their cars, they paused before MPD's Entertainment District Unit (EDU) precinct building at Linden Avenue and Second Street, where a circle of off-duty officers were congregated in a back lot.
Hours earlier, the EDU officers had witnessed the horrific death of Warren, their colleague, shot by gunman Alexander Haydel, 22, in the stairwell of the Doubletree Hotel. Haydel, now serving two life sentences, had killed another man earlier that night during a domestic dispute.
Later that night, merchants showered the EDU with condolences: Pizza, sandwiches, plate lunches — and booze. Officers congregated, taking what they wanted: soda, beer, Jack Daniel's and other liquor.
"With the squad cars lined up and the trucks lined up nobody could see us," Skelton said.
This is "choir practice," a tradition at MPD, according to several officers and court records.
"It's been around as long as we've been around," said Skelton, who joined the force in 1991.
Choir practice sometimes involves drinking, sometimes not, Officer Steven Breth testified. He said he'd seen officers drinking in the past on the back lots at the Mount Moriah and Raines stations.
It's a practice that continues today, Skelton said.
Though Skelton confessed to police investigators to drinking a beer on the lot before the encounter, ISB records reviewed by The Commercial Appeal indicate the officers cited for excessive force contended they either didn't drink that night or only drank after the incident.
The matter is a central point of contention in the civil suit, alleging improper training of officers and the city's failure to rein in the practice that led to the encounter.
Asked if police administration was aware of the choir practice tradition or if it ever tried to rein it in, MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph, declined to comment.
Following the action in the stairwell at the Doubletree, ISB records show Breth changed out of his bloody uniform and returned in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals after his shift ended at 3 a.m., joining the glum circle of off-duty officers in the back lot dressed in street clothes, black T-shirts or partial uniforms.
As the men shared details of the tragedy, some heard a commotion coming from the front of the precinct building. Revelers leaving Beale often are loud but something about this group struck officer Marico Flake as odd. He heard yelling, then the sound of a bottle tossed onto the lot.
It was 3:56 a.m.
"I'm going to walk around and see about this," Flake, an eight-year veteran, told himself, according to his ISB statement.
Out front, Lytle and McDonald had stopped to rest. Three women in their group sat on a small concrete ledge separating the sidewalk from the precinct building.
It was dark, and when officer Flake approached the group he was out of uniform. A small man with wire-rimmed glasses who'd spent the night on patrol on a gyroscopic scooter, he had removed his police shirt and vest and was dressed in a black T-shirt, bike shorts and black shoes.
Though out of uniform, Flake said he kept his badge displayed and identified himself as an officer — contentions denied by Lytle and McDonald, as well as four other citizens who gave statements to Internal Affairs.
The smaller Flake said McDonald and Lytle — each about 6'4" — stood "towering over me." One lunged at him, he said.
But records show when Flake gave accounts deemed unreliable about the drinking in the back lot and the injuries McDonald sustained, investigators sided with the two men and their friends. This is what they say happened:
Flake, who is black, allegedly told McDonald and Lytle to "take your snow bunnies and keep moving" — a slur directed at the white women in the group. An argument ensued.
As Flake ran toward the back lot, Lytle and McDonald decided to walk away, heading east across Second Street. That's when the fight broke out. According to the two friends, Flake pursued them and jumped on McDonald's back in the middle of the street.
By then, officer Howard came from the back lot. As he ran to help Flake subdue McDonald, Lytle, "began to swing on me." Then officer Fowler came out. He helped bring McDonald to the ground.
Despite his many injuries, none of the officers admitted to hitting McDonald in the face. Officers said he continued struggling despite identifying themselves as police and ordering him to stop resisting.
Lytle admits initially fighting the officers to help "my buddy." He says he quit fighting when they identified themselves as police officers.
"I thought we were just being jumped," he told investigators.
Though an ISB case summary indicates both men reported being beaten before and after they were cuffed, Lytle told a reporter police never hit him until he was cuffed. Then, he says, they delivered a barrage. He could feel an arm around his neck, choking off his air.
"This is how I'm going to die," Lytle recalls thinking. "I'm going to get killed by a cop on Beale Street."
Lytle said he's given up on his dream of being a cop.
"I've applied for jobs I know I'm qualified for, police officer jobs all over," said Lytle, now a salesman and project manager for a construction firm. But when he discloses the incident and his lawsuit, it's over. "They don't call back."
Though he and McDonald received a measure of vindication — charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and public intoxication were dismissed — they were disappointed prosecutors declined to charge the officers, citing a lack of evidence for the higher standard of a criminal conviction.
The six officers suspended for excessive force have filed grievances that remain pending, an MPD spokesman said.
With a fiancee and two young daughters, McDonald isn't waiting around for his lawsuit to be resolved. He's weighing options, and one involves leaving Memphis and possibly returning to his native North Carolina to get into the logging business.
"I still think they're some great officers out there," he said. "But there's also a lot of bad. And that goes along with any profession. There's going to be great athletes, bad athletes. There are going to be great movers and bad movers. So you can't just single out one officer. But I do get nervous like I said."
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com