Desmond Mills Jr., one of five former Memphis police officers charged in connection with the brutal beating and death of Tire Nichols, pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to two felony charges of obstruction of justice and excessive force.
He is the first of the five officers indicted on federal charges by a grand jury in September to plead guilty. As part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors, he must fully cooperate with a separate state case against the officers that includes charges of second-degree murder. His cooperation is expected to include pleading guilty to at least some of the state charges.
Prosecutors recommended that Mr. Mills serve a 15-year prison sentence, said Steve Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, at a news conference after Mr. Mills changed his plea. The remaining four officers have all pleaded not guilty to both federal and state charges.
Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was driving home from work on Jan. 7 when he was stopped by the police, died days after the violent encounter. Five Black officers from the department’s elite Scorpion unit, including Mr. Mills, were soon fired for their roles in the beating.
And as street and body camera footage of the encounter horrified the nation, Memphis officials swiftly fired and disciplined multiple other police and emergency personnel and disbanded the specialized police force, which had a history of using excessive force and intimidation.
Mr. Mills was indicted on two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, offenses that carried a maximum sentence of life in prison and which a grand jury said stemmed from unlawfully assaulting Mr. Nichols and neglecting to ensure he received 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 failing to intervene and one count of witness tampering, after he conspired with the other officers to lie about the violence. He is expected to be sentenced in May.
Mr. Mills has been barred from ever working in Tennessee law enforcement. He also faces a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by Mr. Nichols’s 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, a lawyer representing the Nichols family, who was present in the courtroom Thursday. He added, “We think we’re going to see other dominoes fall.”
“This was really the first time I actually heard someone tell and say what they actually did to my son,” said Row Vaughn Wells, Mr. Nichols’s mother, in emotional remarks after the hearing. “This is very difficult.”
“I’m hoping his conscience is telling him the right things to do, instead of his attorneys,” she said of Mr. Mills. “With that being said, we still have more to do.”
Street and body camera footage, some of it captured on a camera worn by Mr. Mills and analyzed by The New York Times, showed how the encounter with Mr. Nichols quickly grew violent, although it remains unclear why he was initially stopped. Mr. Nichols, who did not resist the initial group of officers and was given a conflicting stream of threats and orders, eventually broke away and ran toward 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 initial stop. He twice fired pepper spray in Mr. Nichols’s face, even as the injured man called out for his mother. And while other officers kicked and beat Mr. Nichols, Mr. Mills pulled out his baton and struck Mr. Nichols three times.
Police documents also charged that Mr. Mills left Mr. Nichols handcuffed and alone, despite needing critical medical attention, and did not give Mr. Nichols’s mother an accurate account of what happened to her son when he visited her home with a supervisor. And while his body camera was on for part of the night, he later removed his vest with the camera and put it in a car trunk.
The federal criminal trial is currently scheduled to begin in May, according to court documents. Lawyers for the Justice Department and some of the charged officers have recently filed a request to review the contents of Mr. Nichols’s cellphone.