An Alabama police officer was convicted of murder on Friday for shooting a man who called 911 to report suicidal thoughts and had a gun to his own head.
William “Ben” Darby, a 28-year-old officer in Huntsville, Alabama, faces from 20 years to life in prison for fatally shooting Jeffrey Parker, 49, on 3 April 2018, prosecutors said.
Darby, who was found guilty by jurors during the second day of deliberations, was previously cleared of wrongdoing by a Huntsville review board, which concluded he was justified in using deadly force. The officer, who claimed he shot Parker in self-defense, had strong financial support from a city that put public funding toward his defense. He also received public support from Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, a Republican, and the police department during and after Friday’s verdict.
“While we thank the jury for their service in this difficult case, I do not believe Officer Darby is a murderer,” said Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray in a statement, adding that local law enforcement was “in the first stages of shock.”
But Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard vehemently disagreed with the assessment of city and law enforcement leaders, saying in a news conference that Darby “had no business being a police officer.” Attorneys for Mr Parker’s family say Darby, who had been on the police force for about 18 months at the time, shot the White man 11 seconds after entering his home.
“He was not justified in any way with what he did to Mr Parker,” said Mr Broussard, who called the officer’s actions “off the charts.”
The verdict comes weeks after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd last year, which some say could reflect a change in how police are held accountable for deadly force. The verdict also reignites conversations about how officers are trained to respond to mental health crises in the months since the death of Walter Wallace, a 27-year-old Black man who was killed by Philadelphia police last year.
Parker’s brother, Bill Parker, said in a news conference shortly after the verdict was reached that he hopes his brother’s death results in better responses to mental health crises nationwide.
“I hope that [his death] was not in vain,” he said. “Jeff was just a regular guy. He was just your normal human being.”
Neither the Huntsville Police Department nor the mayor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment Saturday.
Jeffrey Parker called 911 around 4:25 p.m. on 3 April 2018, to report that he was armed and planned to “blow his brains out” inside his Huntsville home, according to a lawsuit filed last year in the Northern District of Alabama.
He told the dispatcher that his front door was unlocked for whoever would show up to his door as he held a gun to his head, according to the lawsuit.
Huntsville officers Genisha Pegues and Justin Beckles were sent to Mr Parker’s home. Ms Pegues first entered with her gun drawn, but pointed down in a neutral position, as she walked in on Parker sitting on his couch with a gun to his head, according to the complaint.
Ms Pegues allegedly asked Mr Parker what was going on with him, and he told her he was “strung out on drugs,” as he and officers engaged in discussion without any aggression, the complaint said.
Darby, who is White, reportedly arrived five minutes after the more senior deputies had responded.
Darby, then 25 and a Top Gun award winner for his accuracy with pistols and shotguns, muttered expletives as he took out his shotgun from his vehicle, the complaint stated. He loaded a slug, a single projectile that’s more accurate at a distance.
Without seeing Mr Parker or knowing what the man was doing, Darby screamed at Ms Pegues as he stood in the front yard, according to the lawsuit. “He can shoot you!” Darby allegedly said to his colleague.
But Mr Parker had already told Ms Pegues that he wasn’t going to shoot her and didn’t want to hurt her.
In Ms Pegues’s testimony, she told the court that she didn’t relay that information to officers on the scene, WHNT-19 reported. She also testified that she never thought she was in danger but admitted that things had the potential to change quickly.
Ms Pegues calmly tried to convince Mr Parker to drop his gun and to cool down Darby, the complaint said. But Darby allegedly ignored her, pushing past her and Mr Beckles.
Darby yelled at Mr Parker to put down the gun that the man had pointed to his own head. Ms Pegues tried to neutralize the escalating situation by speaking to Mr Parker, according to the complaint. Again, Darby allegedly demanded Mr Parker to drop the gun.
“Put the gun down. I’m not going to tell you again!” the officer instructed, according to the lawsuit.
Seconds later, as Ms Pegues was in the middle of speaking to the man, Darby shot Mr Parker in the mouth, the lawsuit states. Mr Parker was dead less than a minute after Darby arrived on the scene, according to the complaint.
Nearly a month after the shooting, a review board organized by the Huntsville Police Department found that Darby’s deadly force had been “within policy.” But that didn’t stop a Madison County grand jury in August 2018 from indicting Darby for Mr Parker’s death.
AL.com reported that the Huntsville City Council voted to dedicate $125,000 in public money for Darby’s criminal defense, much of which was voted on without seeing the body-cam footage of the fatal encounter.
The police chief continued to defend Darby on Friday, saying the officer “believed his life and the lives of other officers were in danger.” Mr Battle, the mayor, was not shy about saying he disagreed with the verdict.
“Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights,” he said in a statement.
Darby’s defense attorney, Robert Tuten, vowed to appeal Friday’s verdict, saying at a news conference that “the jury got it wrong,” the Associated Press reported. Mr Tuten didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Martin Weinberg, an attorney for Mr Parker’s family, called out police and public leaders for their response to the shooting.
“They haven’t respected what the jury has done is the rule of law in this case, and we hope that this won’t happen again,” he said in a news conference. Mr Weinberg didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Post.
Bill Parks, a longtime friend of Mr Parker, said in news conference that he anticipates an appeal. He said he was devastated that his friend “just asked for help” and ended up dead.
“We can’t bring Jeff back. It’s the sad part of this,” he said. “We want justice, but it is a sad day. We wish we didn’t have to be here for this . . . I think if one thing it’s going to [bring is] closure.”
Darby spent less than two and a half hours in jail after the verdict, according to the AP. He was released on $100,000 bond, records showed.
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