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The ex-Memphis police officer accused of killing Tyre Nichols pleads guilty

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a Memphis courtroom today, former police officer Desmond Mills Jr. pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to the killing of Tyre Nichols in January. That's a reversal. Mills previously pleaded not guilty in the beating of Nichols during a traffic stop that also involved four other officers. Mills is the first of the defendants to plead guilty. Katie Riordan of member station WKNO in Memphis was in the courtroom today. And Katie, tell us about what you saw.

KATIE RIORDAN, BYLINE: Hi. Good afternoon. Desmond Mills was calm and polite as he told the judge he was guilty of two federal counts. Through the proceeding, he admitted that he went against his police training and used unreasonable force against Tyre Nichols. Body camera and other surveillance footage captured him striking Nichols several times with a baton the night of his arrest. Mills admitted that he didn't intervene as other officers restrained Nichols and brutalized him. Then, Mills lied to supervisors about their conduct.

SHAPIRO: This was a plea deal. So what did Mills get in exchange for the guilty plea?

RIORDAN: That's right. Federal prosecutors are dropping two other charges against him. They're recommending that he be sentenced to no more - to - excuse me - no more than 15 years in prison. It's important to point out that this was also a package agreement. Mills will also plead guilty to separate charges in state court. Local District Attorney Steve Mulroy says he supports the 15-year sentence in part because of Mills' cooperation and his actions relative to the others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE MULROY: All five officers jointly participated in the beating that led to Tyre Nichols' death, and they're all jointly responsible. But that doesn't mean that there aren't different levels of responsibility within those five, and that certainly was a big factor in our decision.

RIORDAN: But of course, ultimately, it will be up to the judge whether to accept the terms of this agreement or sentence Mills to more or less time.

SHAPIRO: And what does this mean for the four other defendants? Do they still maintain their innocence?

RIORDAN: Yes, they are still maintaining their innocence. There hasn't been any indication if any of them are also in talks for plea deals. I did see two of their attorneys sit in this morning's proceedings, but they didn't offer any comments.

Now, as part of Mills' agreement, he's pledged to cooperate fully with prosecutors and, if called upon, to testify against his former colleagues. Mills' attorney told reporters that his client had been contemplating this decision for a while. He said Mills wanted to take responsibility for his actions, and he was empathetic and remorseful.

SHAPIRO: And I understand you also spoke with the family of Tyre Nichols and their attorneys. What did you hear from them?

RIORDAN: They said they supported the plea agreement and that it was meaningful to see an officer admit to misconduct. That doesn't mean, though, that it was easy for the family to be in court and hear details of their son's beating. Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, said it was really difficult but that this is a start for the family seeking justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROWVAUGHN WELLS: 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.

RIORDAN: The family says they want to see some of the former officers face longer prison sentences. The Justice Department is also currently looking into patterns and practices at the Memphis Police Department as a whole to determine if things like excessive use of force are systemic.

SHAPIRO: Katie Riordan is with WKNO in Memphis. Thanks for your reporting.

RIORDAN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Katie Riordan
Katie joined the WKNO team in 2019. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org