September 24, 2023

Five former police officers have been charged with US federal civil rights violations in the beating death of Tyre Nichols as they continue to fight second-degree murder charges in state courts.

Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith were on Tuesday indicted in the US District Court in Memphis. The four-count indictment charges them with deprivation of rights under the colour of law through excessive force and failure to intervene, and through deliberate indifference; conspiracy to witness tampering; and obstruction of justice through witness tampering.

The charges come nine months after the violent beating during a traffic stop near Mr Nichols’ Memphis home, in which police officers punched, kicked and slugged the 29-year-old with a baton as he yelled for his mother.

Mr Nichols died in hospital three days later. The five former officers, all Black like Mr Nichols, have pleaded not guilty to state charges of second-degree murder and other alleged offences in the case.

“We all heard Mr Nichols cry out for his mother and say ‘I’m just trying to go home,’” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a video statement after the indictment. “Tyre Nichols should be alive today.”

Tyre Nichols

Tyre Nichols, pictured, died in hospital after the altercation – AP Photo

US Attorney Kevin Ritz in West Tennessee said at an afternoon news briefing that the state and federal cases are on separate tracks. Mr Ritz declined to predict how quickly they would proceed.

Kristen Clarke, who leads the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division, said at the appearance that the five former officers used excessive force, failed to advise medical personnel about Mr Nichols’ injuries and conspired to cover up their misconduct.

“In our country, no one is above the law,” Ms Clarke said, adding she met earlier on Tuesday with Mr Nichols’ mother and stepfather.

Caught on police video, the beating was one in a string of violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and police reform in the US.

Ms Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said she was surprised that the federal charges “happened so quickly”. The investigation that led to the indictment was announced in the weeks after the January 7 beating death.

Ms Wells said her son was a “free spirit”.

“He should be here today,” she said during a news conference at a Memphis church. “Because of those five officers, he’s not.”

Attorneys for several of the former officers said the indictment was no surprise, and some added that their clients will defend themselves against the charges.

The indictment says the officers failed to tell dispatchers, their supervisor and emergency medical technicians they knew Mr Nichols had been hit repeatedly, trying to cover up their use of force and shield themselves from criminal liability.

The indictment also alleges instances where the officers used their body cameras to limit what evidence could be captured at the scene: Mr Martin moved his body camera where it wouldn’t show video of the beating; Mr Haley and Mr Smith activated theirs only after the assault; and Mr Haley and Mr Mills took theirs off when emergency medical personnel were on the scene.

At the arrest scene, the officers afterwards discussed hitting Mr Nichols with “straight haymakers” even as Mr Nichols’ condition deteriorated and he became unresponsive, the indictment said. Mr 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.

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

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