Ala. police officer convicted of murder for shooting suicidal man

A jury found Officer William Ben Darby guilty after about two hours of deliberations, returning a verdict that left local police "in the first stages of shock"


By Ashley Remkus
AL.com

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Huntsville police Officer William Ben Darby today was convicted of murder for shooting and killing Jeff Parker, a suicidal man, three years ago.

A Madison County jury found Darby guilty after about two hours of deliberations on Friday morning, returning a verdict that left local police “in the first stages of shock.”

Officer William Ben Darby took the stand in his own defense during his murder trial at the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala.
Officer William Ben Darby took the stand in his own defense during his murder trial at the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala. (Photo/Lee Roop of AL.com via TNS)

Circuit Judge Donna Pate ordered that Darby be taken to the Madison County jail from the courtroom. He was released on a $100,000 bond just over two hours later, records show.

Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard this morning welcomed the verdict. “I’m not saying it was a pleasant day,” he said at a press conference, but the “facts bore out there was nothing justified about this encounter.”

Darby’s defense attorney Robert Tuten said he looks forward to appealing the case and believes the verdict “won’t stand.”

“The jury got it wrong,” Tuten said at a press conference outside his office.

Darby was on duty when he shot and killed Parker on April 3, 2018. Parker called 911 that afternoon and said that he was armed and suicidal.

When the first two officers got to Parker’s west Huntsville home, they found him sitting on a couch with a gun to his own head. The first officer, Genisha Pegues, testified against Darby and told the jury that she was de-escalating the situation before he got there.

Darby testified that he shot Parker in defense of himself and other officers because he feared Parker might shoot them.

Body camera video showed Darby grab a shotgun from his patrol car and sprint to the house. Less than a minute later, he shot Parker in the face. Darby testified that he had to take over the situation from Pegues, a senior officer, because he believed she was putting herself in danger by talking to Parker.

Darby walked up to the house and shouted for Pegues to “point your fu**ing gun at him,” bodycam video showed. Darby repeatedly shouted for Parker to drop his gun. Darby fired the fatal shot 11 seconds after entering the house, according to the video.

In closing arguments, Tuten told the jury that Darby had to shoot. He said if Parker had decided to turn his gun on the police, it would have taken twice as long for the officers to return fire.

Madison County prosecutors saw the case differently. Tim Douthit, an assistant district attorney, argued that Darby killed Parker because the man didn’t follow his orders to drop the gun.

Tim Gann, Madison County’s chief trial attorney, said that Darby violated his oath to serve and protect.

“An innocent man was murdered,” Gann told the jury. “He called for help and he got Ben Darby.”

In a case that has divided city and county leaders, Huntsville police issued an immediate response.

“We are in the first stages of shock,” said Chief Mark McMurray in a statement emailed to the news media. “While we thank the jury for their service in this difficult case, I do not believe Officer Darby is a murderer.”

“Officers are forced to make split-second decisions every day, and Officer Darby believed his life and the lives of other officers were in danger. Any situation that involves a loss of life is tragic. Our hearts go out to everyone involved.”

The Huntsville City Council voted to dedicate $125,000 in public money for Darby’s criminal defense. In 2018, when approving the first $75,000 in support, the city resolution said Darby’s shooting was “within the line and scope of his duty.” The council voted without seeing the bodycam footage.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle has said the shooting was within policy and that he disagreed with the district attorney’s office.

“While I respect the jury’s opinion,” said Battle today, “I disagree with the verdict.”

“We recognize this was a hard case with a lot of technical information to process. Officer Darby followed the appropriate safety protocols in his response on the scene. 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.”

District Attorney Rob Broussard this morning said the evidence “was off the charts. He was not justified in any way.”

Broussard said the case was not a reflection on Huntsville police or local law enforcement. “We have as good of law enforcement as any community could ever hope to have,” he said.

Broussard said Parker showed “zero hostility or aggression” during the encounter, and that Officer Pegues did what you would hope for from police. “She was trying to help this man.” As for Darby, he said: “He had maybe no business being a police officer, truthfully. He was not wired for it … pretty clear.”

Pegues and Justin Beckles, the second officer who arrived at Parker’s home on the day of the shooting, have both since left the Huntsville Police Department. After the shooting, they were both sent to remedial training, while an internal police department review cleared Darby of wrongdoing.

Tuten said he believes that Darby’s appeal will be successful and that the case will “clarify Alabama law regarding on-duty police shootings and will impact the way law enforcement protect Alabamians and perform their duties.

“We look forward to the appeal of this case,” he concluded.

Parker’s brother Bill Parker, speaking at a press conference on the courthouse steps, said that he hopes the city of Huntsville will improve its response to people who are suffering from mental illness.

Bill Parks, a longtime friend of Jeff Parker, said the city should re-evaluate its policies and procedures for police responding to mental health calls.

“We can’t bring Jeff back,” he said.

Martin Weinberg, an attorney representing Parker’s family in a lawsuit against Darby and the city, thanked the DA’s office for prosecuting the case. He said he expects the lawsuit will move forward now that the criminal trial is over.

“The fight for justice does not end today,” Weinberg said.

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