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Breaking down the charges officers are facing in the death of Tyre Nichols

The five officers face charges of second degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and official misconduct, among others.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As the public waits for more information to be released in the death of Tyre Nichols, Thursday, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced charges against the five officers involved in the traffic stop that led to Nichols’ death.

The heaviest charge for all five officers being second degree murder. 

“The charges are very severe. The second-degree murder obviously is an a felony, that's 15 to 25 years in jail with no parole and no probation. So, they would be serving almost the full 15 to 25 years if convicted of the second degree murder. The other ones are B felonies - eight to 12 years there,” said Claiborne Ferguson, Claiborne Ferguson Law Firm.

What's the difference between first degree murder and second degree murder?

In D.A. Steve Mulroy's official statement on the charges released to the media, he made it clear the difference between first degree and second degree murder, and why his office chose the latter as the charge given to the five officers.

First degree murder usually falls into one of the following two categories: Premeditated, intentional killings and Felony murder. 

A premeditated killing, according to the Cornell Law School, requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that someone carried out the act of killing someone based on a prior thought or plan to kill them, regardless of the amount of time between the thought or the action. 

Felony murder is charged when someone dies due to a felony crime occurring. The example cited in the Cornell Law Review is if someone was accidently killed during a robbery. 

Second degree murder occurs when an unplanned, intentional killing (reacting in the heat of the moment when angry) happens, or a death caused by a reckless disregard for human life, such as a crash during a high-speed pursuit resulting in death.

Why were police officers charged with aggravated kidnapping? 

At the press conference held Thursday where Mulroy announced the charges against the five officers, many asked why aggravated kidnapping was among the charges.

Mulroy explained the kidnapping charge comes from any unlawful confinement of a person which "significantly restricts someone's liberty."

"At a certain point in the sequence of events (leading to Tyre's death), it is our view that if it was a legal detention to begin with, it became illegal at some point and was an unlawful detention," Mulroy said.

Mulroy then said the "aggravated" portion of the charge happened because the kidnapping resulted in bodily injury, and the persons involved in the kidnapping possessed weapons.

“Unfortunately, in this case, we got both of those (factors),” said Claiborne Ferguson.

Official misconduct and official oppression according to Tennessee law

The last of the charges the five officers face official misconduct and official oppression. 

Official misconduct is a Class E felony according to Tennessee law, and carries a one to six-year prison term, and a fine up to $3,000. 

Tennessee code outlines official misconduct, as carried out by police officers, as when a public servant commits an offense who, with intent to obtain a benefit or to harm another, intentionally or knowingly: 

  • Commits an act relating to the public servant's office or employment that constitutes an unauthorized exercise of official power;
  • Commits an act under color of office or employment that exceeds the public servant's official power;
  • Refrains from performing a duty that is imposed by law or that is clearly inherent in the nature of the public servant's office or employment;
  • Violates a law relating to the public servant's office or employment; or
  • Receives any benefit not otherwise authorized by law.

“The official misconduct comes because they were law enforcement, and they were breaking the law,” said Ferguson.

Official oppression is also a Class E felony under Tennessee law, and happens when a public servant performing their duties commits an offense who:

  • Intentionally subjects another to mistreatment or to arrest, detention, stop, frisk, halt, search, seizure, dispossession, assessment or lien when the public servant knows the conduct is unlawful; or
  • Intentionally denies or impedes another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power or immunity, when the public servant knows the conduct is unlawful.

We know two of the officers have legal representation. Ferguson said that is not surprising. He expects all the officers involved to retain representation at some point. 

“I expect some of them turn state's witnesses, I'm not expecting to see all five of them hiding behind the thin blue line. I think we're going to see...where the Department and other law enforcement officers will come in and testify that their behavior was way beyond the scope of normal police, policing of our community,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson also said what stood out to him was how fast the officers were fired and how rapid charges were brought forth. He said, typically, these cases could take months or years.

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