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Five former Memphis Police officers face federal indictment for Tyre Nichols' death

An indictment was filed Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, by the U.S. Attorney for West Tennessee Kevin Ritz.

MEMPHIS, Tenn — Five former Memphis Police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols are now also facing federal civil rights charges.

An indictment was filed Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, by the U.S. Attorney for West Tennessee Kevin Ritz.

The indictment lists four counts: (1) Excessive Force and Failure to Intervene, (2) Deliberate Indifference, (3) Conspiracy to Witness-Tamper, and (4) Obstruction of Justice: Witness-Tampering.

It states the defendants - Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills, Justin Smith, Demetrius Haley, and Emmitt Martin – “willfully deprived Tyre Nichols of the right, secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States, to be free from unreasonable seizure, which includes the right to be free from the unreasonable use of force by a police officer.” It goes on to say the five MPD officers “unlawfully assaulted Nichols and willfully failed to intervene in the unlawful assault.”

The indictment accuses the officers of knowingly misleading and “corruptly persuading” or attempting to persuade other officers in the aftermath of Nichols’ death. It claims they intentionally withheld and omitted information and made false statements as part of a cover up.

“The country watched in horror as Tyre Nichols was kicked, punched, tased, and pepper sprayed, and we all heard Mr. Nichols cry out for his mother and say ‘I’m just trying to go home,’” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a news release. “Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement. They dishonor their fellow officers who do their work with integrity every day. The Justice Department will continue to hold accountable officers who betray their oath.”

“When I announced this investigation back in January, I said I wanted this city to be a place where justice is done,” said Ritz. “This indictment alleging civil rights violations is an important step in ensuring that justice is done for Tyre Nichols.”

If convicted, counts one and two could mean a sentence of years, life, or even death and fines. Counts three and four carry a sentence of 20 years in prison and fines.

Details from the indictment

The indictment says the officers failed to tell dispatchers, their supervisor and emergency medical technicians they knew Nichols had been hit repeatedly, 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: Martin moved his body camera where it wouldn't show video of the beating; Haley and Smith activated theirs only after the assault; and Haley and Mills took theirs off when emergency medical personnel were on the scene.

At the arrest scene, the officers afterward discussed hitting Nichols with “straight haymakers,” even as Nichols’ condition deteriorated and he became unresponsive, the indictment said. Nichols could be seen on police video on the ground, slumped against a police car.

The indictment accuses the officers of gathering after the beating and saying, among other things, that “I thought when he wasn’t going to fall, we about to kill this man.” The indictment does not specify which officer made that statement.

The indictment also alleges the officers falsely stated Nichols actively resisted arrest at the beating scene and that he grabbed on Smith’s protective vest and pulled on the officers’ duty belts.

Read the DOJ release HERE.

Read the full federal indictment HERE. 

Reaction from Nichols' family and attorney

Attorney Ben Crump issued this statement following news of the federal indictment: "The news today from the United States Justice Department that there will be criminal accountability on the federal level for Tyre’s death gives his family hope as they continue to grieve his loss and inspire change in his honor. We applaud AG Garland and Assistant AG Clarke for their tireless efforts to create federal accountability for these officers who were selected to be part of the Memphis Police Department's SCORPION unit and savagely ended Tyre's life, setting a critical precedent for accountability and justice.”

Reaction from attorneys for the former officers

Mike Stengel, the attorney for Haley in his state case, confirms to ABC News he will also be representing him on the federal charges. Stengel told ABC, “The indictment is disappointing, but not surprising. He’ll plead not guilty and defend himself in court.”

William Massey will also be representing Emmitt Martin II on the federal charges. He said, “I will be representing Emmitt Martin in the federal indictment. We have been expecting it and are ready to move forward."

Tadarrius Bean’s attorney John Perry will also be representing him on the federal charges. He had no comment. 

Blake Ballins, who represents Mills, told ABC24, "As in the state case, Mr. Mills maintains his innocence.  He will turn himself in on the federal indictment and continue to defend himself against all allegations in both the state and federal court systems."

Charges in Shelby County

Three of the officers have asked the court to sever their trials in Shelby County court. The state argues all five officers participated in the beating, and all should be tried together.

A Sept. 15 hearing was set to address the severance motions. The judge also said he would issue an order at a later date on a media coalition’s push to have more video and records released in the case.

On Jan. 7, 2023, Nichols, 29, was left unconscious, brutally beaten and unrecognizable after what was supposed to be a regular traffic stop, where he encountered several MPD officers serving on a specialized tactics unit called SCORPION Unit. He died three days later.

Nichols's encounter with the MPD officers serving on the SCORPION specialized tactics unit has law enforcement, Nichols' family, and protestors calling for full police reform.

The Department of Justice announced a civil rights "pattern or practice" investigation into the Memphis Police Department and the City of Memphis on July 27, 2023.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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