By Eric Beech and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -Five former Memphis policemen were charged in federal court on Tuesday with violating the civil rights of Black motorist Tyre Nichols by beating him to death after a traffic stop and engaging in a cover-up.
The officers, in a four-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury, are accused of obscuring body-camera recordings of the assault and lying to their superiors.
The federal indictment is separate from the charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault and official misconduct previously brought by local prosecutors in Tennessee state court against the ex-officers, all of them African American.
The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office said it was moving forward with the state case and welcomed the assistance of the federal government, adding that the two criminal investigations were unlikely to intersect.
Video from police body-worn cameras and a camera mounted on a utility pole captured images of the five officers pummeling Nichols with kicks, punches and baton blows, dousing him with pepper spray and firing a stun gun at him following a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
Nichols, 29, a father, aspiring photographer and avid skateboarder who lived with his mother and stepfather and worked for FedEx, could be heard crying out for his mother during the beating and pleading, “I didn’t do anything. … I’m just trying to go home.”
He was hospitalized after the encounter and died three days later. The ordeal renewed a long-running national debate over racial injustice and police brutality. U.S. President Biden cited the Nichols case in calling for police reforms during his State of the Union address in February, with Nichols’ parents present as guests for the speech.
The federal charges allege the officers violated Nichols’ civil rights in the assault itself, as well as by failing to intervene to stop it, and by failing to render first aid afterwards and concealing the assault from emergency medical personnel.
Each of the two civil rights charges carries a maximum punishment of life in prison if the officers are convicted, Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said at a news conference.
The other two counts are each punishable by up to 20 years in prison. They accuse the officers of lying to superiors and investigators about what happened. They are also accused of trying to cover up the assault by removing or turning away their body cameras at crucial moments and fabricating an account that Nichols tried to grab their weapons and “was so strong that he lifted two officers into the air.”
“Tyre Nichols should be alive today. No one in this country should have to bury a loved one because of police violence,” Kristen Clarke, who leads the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters.
Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, representing the Nichols family, thanked the grand jury in separate remarks “for affirming what we already know in our hearts, that police officers brutally killed Tyre Nichols and it was unjustified, unnecessary and unconstitutional.”
The five former officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith – pleaded not guilty in February to the state charges after they were fired from the Memphis Police Department.
Police had initially said Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving, but the city police chief later said the cause for the stop was unsubstantiated.
The defendants were expected to make their initial court appearances on the federal charges in the coming days, Ritz said.
Defense attorney Michael Stengel, who represents Haley, said his client would plead not guilty and defend himself in court.
“The indictment is disappointing, but not surprising,” Stengel said in an email.
William Massey, an attorney representing Martin, said in an email: “We have been expecting it and are ready to move forward.”
Attorney Blake Ballin, who represents Mills, said the federal indictment “does not change Mr. Mills’s position … (he) will continue to defend himself against all allegations in both the state and federal court systems.”
In July, the Justice Department opened a separate, civil investigation into whether the Memphis Police Department has engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive force and racial discrimination. Officials said the inquiry would include a review of reports that officers were involved in disproportionately stopping African-American motorists for minor infractions in the majority-Black city, such as a broken tail light.
The Justice Department has received multiple reports of Memphis officers’ using excessive force, including cases in which individuals are already restrained or in police custody. The department was conducting community meetings as part of that civil investigation, Clarke said.
(Reporting by Eric Beech, Daniel Trotta, Jonathan Allen and Kanishka Singh; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Gorman; Editing by Caitlin Webber, Deepa Babington and Leslie Adler)