Desmond Mills Jr., one of five former Memphis police officers charged in connection with the brutal beating and death of Tyre 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, and potentially testifying against the other officers.
Prosecutors recommended that Mr. Mills serve a 15-year prison sentence. 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 carry a maximum sentence of life in prison and that 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 is someone who understands he’s done something wrong and is taking responsibility for it,” said Blake Ballin, a lawyer for Mr. Mills. “This is Step 1. The next step is to continue to cooperate with the state and federal government.”
Steve Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, said at a news conference that as part of the deal, he expected Mr. Mills to cooperate with all of the open investigations, suggesting that he could help outline systemic issues within the Memphis Police Department.
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. He added, “We think we’re going to see other dominoes fall.”
“This was really the first time I actually heard somebody tell and say what they actually did to my son,” RowVaughn Wells, Mr. Nichols’s mother, said after the hearing. She wept in the courtroom as a prosecutor recounted how Mr. Mills sprayed her son with pepper spray and repeatedly struck him with a baton.
“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, though 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.
“There are different levels of responsibility within the five defendants,” Mr. Mulroy said, adding that he believed Mr. Mills was “not the worst of the five.”
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.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Mills, who also sprayed himself with pepper spray while aiming at Mr. Nichols, did not intervene when the other officers continued to punch and beat Mr. Nichols. He also did not administer medical aid and joined the other officers in claiming that Mr. Nichols was high and resisted arrest.
As the officers began to discuss the violence they had inflicted, Mr. Mills took off his body camera, prosecutors said, and later told his supervisor that they had handled “everything by the book.” And despite traveling with Mr. Nichols and one of the other officers to the hospital, Mr. Mills did not inform medical staff that Mr. Nichols had been hit with a baton and struck in the head.
Mr. Mills also lied in official police reports, prosecutors said in court documents. He “understood from his experience working with Scorpion Team One officers” and conversations with the other four officers “that no one was going to admit that unlawful force had been used.”
The federal criminal trial is scheduled to begin in May, according to court documents. Lawyers for the Justice Department and some of the charged officers have recently tussled over a request to review the contents of Mr. Nichols’s cellphone.