(CNN) — Five former Memphis police officers involved in the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols have been indicted by a federal grand jury, according to court filings.
The five former officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith – are facing several charges, including federal civil rights, conspiracy, and obstruction offenses resulting in Nichols’ death.
Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was violently beaten by Memphis police officers in January and died in the hospital from his injuries. Nichols was repeatedly punched and kicked by the five Memphis Police Department officers after the officers conducted a traffic stop and brief foot chase. He required hospitalization after the encounter and died three days later.
“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,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
Garland added, “The Justice Department will continue to hold accountable officers who betray their oath.”
The federal indictment says the five men “willfully deprived” Nichols of his constitutional rights “to be free from an unreasonable seizure, which includes the right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer.”
The former officers “unlawfully assaulted” Nichols and “willfully failed to intervene in the unlawful assault,” which caused injuries that resulted in his death, the indictment reads.
CNN has reached out to attorneys for the five officers for comment. A lawyer for Justin Smith declined to comment.
“This is going to cause us to change gears a little bit. This adds another layer of things that we’ll have to look into and investigate,” Blake Ballin, defense attorney for Desmond Mills, told CNN, reacting to the federal indictment.
“We have been expecting this federal indictment and it does not change Mr. Mills’s position,” Ballin said in another statement to CNN. “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.”
The death reignited a national debate on justice in policing and reform, rocking a nation long accustomed to videos of police brutality, especially against people of color. It also spurred protests and vigils in Memphis and other major US cities.
“If anything, we are so hopeful that today sent a chilling effect – a chilling effect – on police officers across America,” said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Nichols family, during a news conference Tuesday. “That not only are you going to be under review by the state, but Merrick Garland and the Biden administration have sent the warning and set a precedent that the federal government is going to defend the civil rights for all American citizens, against anybody, whether they’re wearing a badge or not.”
The five officers are also facing state charges in Tennessee related to Nichols’ death – which they have pleaded not guilty to – and a federal civil lawsuit. All five were terminated by the Memphis Police Department.
“When some officers violate the Constitution, when they use excessive force, when they ignore serious injuries inflicted on people they arrest, their actions erode the public’s trust,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, during a news conference on Tuesday.
Since January 2021, the Justice Department has brought more than 100 prosecutions involving violations of constitutional and legal rights by law enforcement officials. In that same period, the department obtained more than 86 convictions, Clarke said.
Police footage contradicted police report
Body camera videos and surveillance footage from Nichols’ arrest were released on January 27, publicly revealing the severity of the beating, and sparking widespread condemnation from residents and police officials. The county prosecutor said at the time the videos contradicted what officers said happened in the initial police report.
The initial police report filed in the hours after the traffic stop said Nichols “started to fight” with officers and at one point grabbed one of their guns. But neither claim was substantiated in footage of the encounter released by police.
And despite the fact that the videos don’t appear to show Nichols fighting back, the report identified Nichols as a suspect in an aggravated assault. The report also did not mention the officers punching and kicking Nichols.
The report also claimed Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving at high speed – another claim not substantiated by video of the encounter.
The five fired officers were part of the department’s specialized SCORPION unit, which was launched in 2021 to take on a rise in violent crime in Memphis. Police permanently deactivated the unit shortly after Nichols’ death.
Officers attempted cover-up, prosecutors say
In the federal indictment, prosecutors also allege the five officers purposefully tried to keep their body-worn cameras out of view of the beating.
After the beating, the five detectives attempted to cover up the use of unreasonable force by giving misleading information to and withholding details from their supervisor and the officer tasked with writing an incident, according to the indictment.
Officers allegedly failed to tell emergency responders that Nichols had been repeatedly struck in the head and allegedly lied about Nichols pulling on the officers’ gun belts and being so strong that he lifted two officers off the ground.
More than an hour of footage showing the deadly assault released by city officials in January shows multiple officers threatening Nichols with violence while he appears to comply with their commands or is already on the ground.
A body camera video that captures the initial encounter between Nichols and police shows the officer getting out of his car with his gun drawn and captures an officer yelling for Nichols to “Get the f**k out of the car.”
Nichols is heard saying, “I didn’t do anything,” and later, as he gets on the ground, “All right, I’m on the ground.”
An officer yells at him, “B*tch, put your hands behind your back before I … I’m going to knock your ass the f**k out.”
Nichols says, “I’m just trying to go home.”
Nichols family filed federal lawsuit against Memphis
Nichols’ family filed a $550 million federal lawsuit in April against the city of Memphis, its police department and what the suit said were “unqualified, untrained, and unsupervised” officers assigned to the SCORPION unit.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers for Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said the fatal beating was the “direct and foreseeable product of the unconstitutional policies, practices, customs, and deliberate indifference of the City of Memphis” and its police officials.
“It is tragic to see a life cut short at 29 with so many milestones unmet, so many words unsaid and so much potential unfulfilled. Tyre Nichols should be alive today. No one in this country should have to bury a loved one because of police violence,” Clarke said Tuesday.
During a news conference Tuesday held by the Nichols family and their attorneys, Wells said her family is “grateful” for the indictment against the five former officers.
“As I’ve mentioned before, Ty, he was just a free spirit and he really should be here today,” Wells continued. “Because of those five police officers, he’s not. This is something that I’m gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life – that I will not have my son. But if my son had to leave this Earth in this manner, I’m hoping it was for the greater good.”
The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into the city of Memphis and its police department in July, seeking to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by the agency. The probe is separate from the federal criminal civil rights investigation of the officers, the department said.
Last month, Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy said his office dismissed more than 30 cases involving the five former police officers who were charged in Nichols’ death, CNN previously reported.
“As in any such case, the primary consideration is concern about the credibility as witnesses of discharged officers,” the district attorney’s statement said.
In addition to the 30 dismissals, charges were reduced in about a dozen other cases, the district attorney’s statement said. Mulroy said the changes came after his office reviewed approximately 100 cases involving the officers.