Minutes after a jury in Huntsville found William Darby guilty of murder, the city’s mayor and police chief released statements disputing that verdict and continuing to defend the officer who shot and killed Jeff Parker.
“Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights,” said Mayor Tommy Battle in a statement on May 7, 2021.
Now, more than a year after that guilty verdict, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals will hear oral arguments in Darby’s case as his lawyers fight to overturn his conviction.
Though the city won’t participate in the arguments on Thursday, the outcome of the appeal bears on its credibility. The city went all in on defending Darby, declaring that he followed his training, paying his criminal legal bills with public money and keeping him on the payroll even after the jury found him guilty of murder.
Darby, who goes by Ben, is serving a 25-year sentence in prison. He shot and killed Parker on April 3, 2018, after the man called police, threatening to shoot himself in his own home.
Rob Broussard, the district attorney of Madison County, told AL.com in an interview last week that the city “knew it was a bad shoot right out of the gate.” He compared the city’s decision to back Darby to “going all in on a high-stakes game of poker.”
“We’ve had nothing but the greatest respect for a lot of good police work that’s been done in this city for decades and decades, and I know that department is full of young, hard working, good guys,” said Broussard, whose office prosecuted Darby.
“But this was a particular incident involving a particular officer that the city of Huntsville made the decision to go the route they went to deny the truth and there’s been a lot of fallout that came from it. And that’s on them. And it’s a shame.”
The city of Huntsville did not comment for this story.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals seldom grants oral arguments. Of the hundreds of appeals before the court each year, the judges typically hold oral arguments in about 15-20 cases, said Scott Mitchell, the clerk of the court.
“The impact of these arguments and then any decision that comes out of them is twofold,” said Nick Lough, one of Darby’s attorneys. “It directly impacts William Darby, who is sitting in prison right now, and it may also impact law enforcement around the state of Alabama.”
At oral arguments on Thursday, Darby’s lawyers will tell the appeals court that the trial last summer violated his constitutional right to a public trial and argue that the trial judge should have given the jury special instructions on when police can shoot someone.
Darby’s attorneys argue that the judge should have instructed the jury to decide the case from the perspective of a reasonable police officer making split second decisions, a federal standard applied to on-duty officers in civil suits.
In the criminal trial, Judge Pate instructed the jury on Alabama self-defense law, which says that a person is justified in using deadly force if they reasonably believe another person is using or about to use unlawful deadly force. There is not a special standard for police in Alabama’s self-defense law.
If the appeals court sides with Darby’s lawyers, the judges could order a new trial and send instructions for the trial court on how to instruct the jury. Such a decision could set a precedent for special instructions in any future case when an officer goes on trial, though police are seldom prosecuted for on-duty shootings in Alabama.
Darby is one of just two officers in recent years prosecuted following a fatal shooting. The other was Aaron Cody Smith, a Montgomery police officer convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years for killing Gregory Gunn in 2016.
On the day Darby shot and killed him, Parker called 911 and said that he was armed and suicidal. Police went to Parker’s home in west Huntsville and found him sitting on a couch with a gun to his head. The first officer to arrive testified against Darby at the murder trial, telling the jury that she tried to de-escalate and keep Parker from taking his own life.
Darby, the third officer to arrive, testified that he had to take over the situation from the senior officer because he believed she was putting herself in danger by talking to Parker. He told the jury that he shot Parker in defense of himself and two other officers because he feared the man might shoot them with what later turned out to be a flare gun.
Body camera video shows Darby grab a shotgun from his patrol car, sprint to the house and shout for Parker to drop his gun. Darby fired the fatal shot 11 seconds after entering the house, the video shows.
About a month after the shooting, the Huntsville police department’s internal review board — a panel of three captains — decided that Darby did not violate city policy when he shot and killed Parker. In fact, Darby returned to work, and the city sent the other two officers for remedial training.
Tim Gann, the Madison County deputy district attorney, told AL.com that the city’s own policy goes further than the state’s self-defense law. Gann, a former Huntsville police officer, is one of two lawyers who prosecuted Darby’s case.
The city’s policy says that officers can use deadly force when they are in “imminent danger,” which it defines as “the threat of death that is immediate, certain, and unequivocal.”
Yet Darby’s conviction prompted Mark McMurray, the police chief at the time, to write to the Alabama Attorney General and ask whether the city needed to change its policies in light of the jury’s verdict.
“Does an Alabama law enforcement officer have to wait until an individual points a gun at him before he can use deadly force?” McMurray wrote in his letter to Attorney General Steve Marshall. The attorney general did not respond.
As it does with other felony convictions throughout the state, Marshall’s office will defend the jury’s guilty verdict at the oral arguments this week.
Broussard told AL.com that the issue isn’t in the city’s written policies. He said the problem in the Darby case is how the police department command staff interpreted those policies.
“You look at their training materials and this was clearly not a good shoot under that,” Broussard told AL.com. “They obviously made decisions to go a different direction and call it a good shoot, but it doesn’t change what reality is.”
Broussard said that despite the conflict created by the Darby prosecution, his office continues to back law enforcement. He pointed out that much of the evidence they used to convict Darby came from the Huntsville police department, which at the time investigated its own officers when they shot someone.
“There were some honorable upright people at HPD that knew it was wrong,” Broussard said of Darby killing Parker. “We can’t get a conviction on theory. We have to have evidence. And there were good officers present, a good investigator that investigated the thing, and it didn’t come out of thin air. It was people from within that knew it wasn’t right.”