Court reverses Ala. officer’s 2021 murder conviction in death of suicidal man
The appeals court ruled the judge should have instructed the jury to decide the case from the perspective of a reasonable police officer
By Ashley Remkus
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — William Ben Darby, the Huntsville police officer convicted of murder for shooting and killing a suicidal man five years ago, will get a new trial.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals today released a unanimous opinion reversing Darby’s conviction and sending the case back to Madison County for a new trial.
The appeals court ruled that Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate should have instructed the jury to decide the case from the perspective of a reasonable police officer.
“The opinion confirms our position that police officers are under a different standard when it comes to a self-defense situation,” said Robert Tuten, one of Darby’s defense attorneys. “It’s different than the average person because police are expected to go into dangerous situations as part of their job.”
Darby is serving a 25-year sentence in prison. He shot and killed Jeff Parker on April 3, 2018, after Parker called 911, threatening to shoot himself in his own home.
Though the court reversed his conviction, Darby will remain in prison as the Alabama Attorney General’s Office considers whether to ask for a rehearing. The state could also appeal the appellate court’s decision to the Alabama Supreme Court.
“We have the evidence and certainly we’ll put it before a jury again,” Rob Broussard, the district attorney of Madison County, told AL.com. “This is the system we have and I trust in the system, and this happens. We’ve had it happen before on other cases.”
Tuten told AL.com that Darby was happy to learn of the appeals court decision this morning.
“He knew he was right,” Tuten said. “He knew he didn’t break the law or do anything wrong.”
The appeals court ruled that Judge Pate erred in declining to give the jury the following instruction requested by Darby’s attorneys: “The reasonableness of an officer’s actions in using deadly force must be objectively reasonable judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, the fact that officers are forced to make split-second decisions, and in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them at the time.”
In their opinion, the appeals court judges wrote, “Although the trial court was not required to use the precise language in Darby’s requested instruction, the court erred by refusing to instruct the jury, in some fashion, that it must evaluate Darby’s use of deadly force from the perspective of a reasonable police officer in the same situation.”
At the murder trial in downtown Huntsville in the summer of 2021, 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.
On the day of the shooting in 2018, 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 the situation 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.
The appeals court found that Darby presented evidence that could support a self-defense claim.
“Of course, the jury was not required to accept that testimony as conclusive, and it is possible that the jury simply did not find the testimony persuasive,” the opinion states.
“However, it is equally possible that the jury did not base its verdict upon its careful consideration and weighing of the testimony and evidence but, rather, upon a faulty understanding of its duty to view that testimony and evidence from the proper perspective,” the opinion later adds.
But in its opinion, the court said that it couldn’t deal in “possibilities.”
“If we cannot conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury evaluated Darby’s use of deadly force from the proper perspective, then we cannot conclude that the trial court committed harmless error by refusing to give (Darby’s) requested instruction…or some similarly worded instruction.”
The city of Huntsville 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.
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Mark McMurray, the police chief at the time, disputed the guilty verdict.
“Officer Darby followed the appropriate safety protocols in his response on the scene,” Battle said in a statement minutes after the 2021 verdict. “He was doing what he was trained to do in the line of duty. Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights.”
The city of Huntsville did not immediately respond to a request for comment on today’s ruling by the appellate court.
Martin Weinberg, an attorney representing the Parker family in a lawsuit against the city and Darby, released the following statement today:
“We are disappointed obviously but we knew this was a possibility. This is justice delayed not justice denied. We have strong faith in the District Attorney and the judicial system.”
The Alabama Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement saying the group is pleased with the appellate court decision.
“This is a great day for all law-enforcement officers and we look forward to welcoming Ben back to his family,” said Everette Johnson, the group’s president, in the statement. “The Alabama state fraternal order of police will continue to fight for the officers of Alabama to make sure that justice is served.”