Desmond Mills Jr., one of five former Memphis police officers charged in connection with the brutal beating and death of Tyra Nichols, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to two counts of obstruction of justice and excessive force.
He is the first of five police officers indicted by a grand jury in September on federal charges to plead guilty. As part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors, he must fully cooperate in a separate state case against the officers that includes charges of second-degree murder. His cooperation is expected to include a guilty plea to at least some of the state charges.
Prosecutors recommended that Mr. Mills serve 15 years in prison, said Steve Mulroy, Shelby County District Attorney. at the press conference after Mr. Mills changed his plea. The remaining four officers have pleaded not guilty to either federal or state charges.
Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old black man who was driving home from work on Jan. 7 when he was pulled over by police, died days after the violent encounter. Five black officers from the elite Scorpion unit, including Mr Mills, were soon dismissed for their role in the beating.
And while street and body camera footage of the encounter horrified the nation, Memphis officials quickly fired and disciplined several other police and emergency personnel and disbanded the specialized police force, which had a history of using excessive force and intimidation.
Mr. Mills was charged with two counts of deprivation of rights under the law, felonies that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison and which the grand jury said stemmed from the unlawful assault on Mr. Nichols and neglect of medical aid. The remaining two counts – both related to obstruction and witness tampering – are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
On Thursday, standing in a Memphis courtroom, Mr. Mills showed little emotion as he pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of rights under color of law after using excessive force and failure to intervene and one count of witness tampering, after he conspired with other officers to lie about the violence. He is expected to be sentenced in May.
Mr. Mills is barred from ever working for the Tennessee Police Department. He also faces a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Mr. Nichols’ family against the officers, the city of Memphis and the Memphis police chief, among others.
“This is the first domino to fall,” said Ben Crump, an attorney representing the Nichols family, who was present in court Thursday. He added: “We think we’re going to see other dominoes fall.”
“This was really the first time I’ve ever heard someone speak up and say what he actually did to my son,” RowVaughn Wells, Mr. Nichols’ mother, said in emotional comments after the hearing. “This is very difficult.”
“I hope his conscience is telling him the right things instead of his lawyers,” she said of Mr Mills. “That being said, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Footage from street and body cameras, some of which was captured by a camera worn by Mr. Mills and analyzed by The New York Times, showed how the meeting with Mr. Nichols quickly became violent, although it remains unclear why he was initially terminated. Mr Nichols, who did not resist the initial group of officers and received a series of counter threats and orders, eventually broke free and ran towards his family home.
Mr. Mills was among the officers who responded to calls for backup and caught up with Mr. Nichols, a FedEx worker, about 600 yards from the starting station. He fired pepper spray into Mr Nichols’ face twice, even as the injured man called his mother. And while other police officers kicked and beat Mr. Nichols, Mr. Mills drew his bat and struck Mr. Nichols three times.
Police documents also state that Mr. Mills left Mr. Nichols handcuffed and alone, despite needing critical medical attention, and that the mother of Mr. Nichols did not give an accurate account of what happened to her son when he visited her home with a supervisor. And while his camera was on for part of the night, he later took off the vest with the camera and put it in the trunk of the car.
According to court documents, the federal criminal trial is currently scheduled to begin in May. Lawyers for the Justice Department and some of the accused officers recently clashed over requests to review the contents of Mr. Nichols’ cellphone.