Former Memphis police officer pleads guilty to federal charges in Tyre Nichols’ death

FILE - This Jan. 26, 2023, booking photo released by the Shelby County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office shows former Memphis Police Officer Desmond Mills Jr. in Memphis. Mills Jr. is changing his plea from not guilty on federal charges that he violated Tyre Nichols' civil rights by fatally beating him after a traffic stop in January 2023. A change of plea hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 2, for Mills Jr., according to court documents and his lawyer. (Shelby County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

The screen at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans honors Tyre Nichols before an NBA basketball game on Jan. 28 between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Washington Wizards. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton, File)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A former Memphis police officer pleaded guilty Thursday in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in exchange for prosecutors recommending a 15-year sentence, becoming the first of five officers charged in the case to admit guilt.

Desmond Mills Jr. entered his plea during a hearing at the Memphis federal courthouse as part of a larger agreement under which he will also plead guilty to related charges in state court. It wasn’t immediately clear if any of the other officers would follow suit. Attorneys for three of the officers declined to comment and William Massey, the lawyer for Emmitt Martin, said in a text message that they “will stay the course” with the former officer’s criminal defense.


Mills pleaded guilty to federal charges of excessive force and obstruction of justice and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. The final sentencing decision rests with the judge. Mills remains free on bail ahead of his May 22 sentencing hearing.

Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, shook as she described hearing how five large men beat her skinny son.

“This one today was very difficult for me because this was really the first time I actually heard somebody tell and say what they actually did to my son,” she told reporters outside the courthouse. “So, this was very difficult. But I’m hoping that Mr. Mills, it was his conscience that allowed him to make this plea agreement, and not because of his lawyers telling him it was the right thing to do.”

Caught on police video, the beating of Nichols 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 for police reform in the U.S. The five former officers who were charged also are Black.

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 — Mills, Martin, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley and Justin Smith — pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in state court. Mills is the first to agree to plead guilty.

Nichols’ mother and her husband said the possibility of 15 years in prison is “a start.” Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, noted that Mills has a family, with three children 6 years old and younger.

“Fifteen years is a long time with no parole,” Rodney Wells said at the news conference. “That’s going to affect his family, that’s going to affect him.”

Blake Ballin, Mills’ defense attorney, told reporters that Mills “understands he did something wrong and he’s taking responsibility for it.” Ballin added that there’s “overwhelming evidence of the guilt of people involved here,” and if authorities need Mills to testify at a possible trial, he will.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Mills’ cooperation “probably would incentivize” the other officers to consider plea deals.

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