HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Jurors convicted an Alabama police officer of murder Friday in the shooting of a suicidal man who was holding a gun to his own head, a verdict that was criticized by both the mayor and police chief, but lauded by the victim's family, who said they hope it will spur law enforcement to change how they approach mental health crises.
The panel reached its decision in the second day of deliberations in the trial of Huntsville police officer William “Ben” Darby, who was indicted in the killing of Jeffrey Parker in 2018. Talks had to be started over after one jury member had to be replaced by an alternate because of a medical issue, news outlets reported.
While prosecutors contend Darby, 28, killed Parker without cause, the defense argued the shooting was justified because Parker posed a threat to Darby and other officers.
Darby was taken into custody after the verdict but spent less than two and a half hours in jail after being released on $100,000 bond, records showed. The conviction carries a sentence to 20 years to life, District Attorney Rob Broussard told a news conference afterward.
While defending Huntsville police in general, Broussard said Darby's actions were “off the charts.”
“He was not justified in any way with what he did to Mr. Parker,” he said. Darby “had no business being a police officer,” Broussard said.
A city police review cleared Darby of wrongdoing and officials allowed him to remain an officer, with Huntsville taxpayers helping fund his defense against charges brought by a Madison County grand jury.
The guilty verdict left police "in the first stages of shock,” Chief Mark McMurray said in a statement.
“While we thank the jury for their service in this difficult case, I do not believe Officer Darby is a murderer,” McMurray said. The statement continued: “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.”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle also took issue with the verdict, saying he disagreed with it. "Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights,” he said in a statement.
During a news conference outside the courthouse, Bill Parker, the victim’s brother, said he hopes the city will improve how it responds to people who are suffering from mental illness, al.com reported.
Darby shot Parker, who was white, while responding to a call after the man phoned 911 saying he was armed and planned to kill himself. A one-time colleague, Genisha Pegues, testified that while Parker was upset, he was talking to her and posed no immediate threat despite a gun held to his head.
“An innocent man was murdered,” prosecutor Tim Gann told jurors in closing arguments. “He called for help and he got Ben Darby.”
Defense attorney Robert Tuten called Darby "an honorable person doing an honorable profession,” and vowed to appeal Friday's verdict.
Jurors saw video of the shooting taken from police body cameras, and Darby testified that he feared seeing “one of my officers” get hurt and fired after Parker only shrugged when ordered to put down the gun he was holding to his own head.