Former Memphis officer charged in Tyre Nichols death to change plea in federal court

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A former Memphis police officer who plans to change his not guilty plea to federal civil rights violations in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols will become the first of five officers charged in the case to break ranks with his former colleagues.

A change of plea hearing has been scheduled for Thursday for Desmond Mills Jr., according to federal court documents and his lawyer.

Mills and four other former Memphis Police Department officers have been charged in federal court with using excessive force, failing to intervene, deliberate indifference and conspiring to lie after they were caught on camera punching, kicking and hitting Nichols with a police baton on Jan. 7. Nichols died three days later in a hospital.

The federal charges also include obstruction of justice through witness tampering.

The five former officers — Mills, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith — also have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in state court.

Mills' lawyer, Blake Ballin, said he could not discuss details of the plea agreement, including which charges it pertains to. Ballin said Mills was changing his plea “to take responsibility for his actions.”

Mills also plans to enter a plea agreement in state court, but that would not take place until later, Ballin said.

U.S. District Judge Mark Norris has scheduled a May trial for the officers in the federal case. A trial has not been set in state court.

The fatal beating of Nichols, 29, was one of several violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and police reform in the U.S.

The five former officers also are Black. They were fired from the department and the crime-suppression team they were part of disbanded after Nichols’ death. However, members of that Scorpion unit have been moved to other teams.

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 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.

Additionally, the indictment alleges instances where the officers used their body cameras to limit what evidence could be captured at the scene.

Police have said Nichols was pulled over on an allegation of reckless driving. Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ' Davis said later that no evidence was found that Nichols was actually driving recklessly. Nichols ran away from officers who tried to restrain him outside of his car. He ran toward his nearby home and called out for his mother as he was pummeled just steps from his house.

An autopsy report showed Nichols died from blows to the head, and the manner of death was homicide. The report described brain injuries, cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body.

In a state court filing, Mills’ lawyer said the officer was not at the traffic stop. In a separate filing, prosecutors said Nichols was “a helpless victim” as he was hit by Haley, Martin and Mills while being held by Bean and Smith.

The officers made statements about the beating during an internal police investigation. The so-called Garrity statements are disclosures made by police officers during internal investigations under the threat of termination if they stay silent. They have been viewed by courts as compelled and therefore cannot be used in criminal court.

Mills said in his Garrity statement that he struck Nichols three times with a baton and deployed pepper spray twice because “officers were unable to handcuff him,” the documents say. The records say Mills admitted that he didn’t “provide immediate medical aid and walked away and decontaminated” himself “from chemical irritant spray.”