MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A former Memphis police officer changed his plea to guilty Thursday in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, becoming the first of five officers charged to reverse course.
Desmond Mills Jr. entered his plea during a hearing at the Memphis federal courthouse as part of a larger agreement to settle charges in state court as well. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the four other officers would follow suit. Their attorneys declined to comment on Mills’ guilty plea.
Mills pleaded guilty to federal charges of excessive force and obstruction of justice and agreed to plead guilty to related state charges. Mills also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, who are recommending a 15-year sentence. The final sentencing decision rests with the judge. Sentencing is scheduled for May 22.
Caught on police video, the Nichols beating in January was one in a string of violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and the need to for police reform in the U.S.
Mills and four other former Memphis Police Department officers were charged in federal court with using excessive force, failing to intervene, deliberate indifference and conspiring to lie, as well as obstruction of justice after they were caught on camera punching, kicking and beating Nichols on Jan. 7. He died three days later.
The five former officers — Mills, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith — pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in state court. Mills is the first to agree to change that plea to guilty.
Nichols family supports the plea agreement, according to Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy.
“I join Tyre’s family in saying this is a fair result, given Mr. Mills’ level of involvement, and his willingness to cooperate with us,” Mulroy said in a news release. “His cooperation will help us bring to justice all those criminally responsible while also identifying needs for systemic reform within the police department.”
The plea agreement sets out Mills’ role in the fatal beating, detailing how he pepper-sprayed Nichols three times before pulling out a baton and yelling, “I’m about to baton the (expletive) out of you.” He repeatedly struck Nichols, who was on the ground and surrounded by officers, never giving him an opportunity to comply with the command, “give us your hands!”
After the beating, Mills and his fellow officers discussed “taking turns hitting Nichols, hitting Nichols with straight haymakers, and everybody rocking Nichols. During these conversations, the officers discussed hitting Nichols to make him fall and observed that when Nichols did not fall from these blows, they believed they were ‘about to kill’ him,” according to the plea agreement.
Martin used hand signals to indicate to Mills that his body camera was still recording. Mills removed the camera and placed it on the back of a patrol car. The agreement states that when the officers spoke later, they were concerned about the body camera recording and conspired to mislead investigators.
The remaining four officers have a May 6 trial date in federal court. A trial has not yet been set in state court.
The five former officers who were charged also are Black. They were fired from the department and the crime-suppression team they were part of was disbanded.
Kristen Clarke, who leads the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, said at a Sept. 13 news conference that the five former officers used excessive force, failed to advise medical personnel about Nichols’ injuries and conspired to cover up their misconduct.
The indictment says the officers failed to tell dispatchers, their supervisor and emergency medical technicians that they knew Nichols had been hit repeatedly. It alleged they were trying to cover up their use of force and shield themselves from criminal liability.
The indictment alleges the officers used their body cameras to limit what evidence was captured at the scene.
Police said they pulled Nichols over because he was driving recklessly, but Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ’ Davis said no evidence was found to support that allegation. Nichols ran from officers, who tried to restrain him. He ran toward his home and pleaded for his mother as he was pummeled just steps from his house.
An autopsy report showed Nichols died from blows to the head, and that the manner of death was homicide. The report described brain injuries, cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body.
Loller reported from Nashville.