Immunity denied for Huntsville police officer charged with murder

Immunity denied for Huntsville police officer charged with murder
(Source: WAFF)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Immunity from prosecution was denied for a Huntsville police officer charged with murder after a deadly shooting that happened in 2018.

A hearing for officer William “Ben” Darby to determine whether or not he would be granted immunity was held Wednesday.

A court order filed Thursday said Darby’s request was denied.

Darby, 26, took the stand during the Wednesday hearing and he was adamant that he did what he had to do to protect himself and his fellow officers on the day in question as they dealt with a suicidal man, Jeffery Parker, who refused to drop his gun.

The hearing came to an end Wednesday afternoon with the judge telling the prosecution and defense that she will soon issue an order on the motion for immunity after reviewing everything presented in court Wednesday.

It was an emotional day for Parker’s loved ones who listened to testimony and watched as body camera footage from the three officers on the scene was played.

Bill Parks, Jeffery Parker’s best friend, attended the hearing to provide support for Parker’s family.

“The one thing we’re all happy that we got to see was finally what the footage was because we’ve all been wondering what in the world has happened over the last year. From my perspective, it was quite a shock, quite a downer. But I would say that we feel good about the situation of what g

ood could come out of this, particularly in terms of what we think justice could be in this situation,” Parks said.

There was also a strong police presence in the courtroom, including Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. He said previously that the department supports Darby, who acted in accordance with his training.

Darby’s testimony began after a short pause while the state reviewed his recorded statement to an incident review board that investigated the deadly on-duty shooting of Jeffery Parker. The board found that he acted in accordance with policies and procedures, but he was later indicted by a grand jury.

[READ MORE: Darby requests immunity from prosecution in murder case]

On April 3rd, 2018. Darby said he was on the way to an HPD precinct to download body camera footage from a previous call when he heard another officer’s voice over the radio. Darby said the details of the call were alarming and that the officer on-scene sounded audibly concerned. The man who had called 911 was “threatening to blow his brains out" and had left his front door open. Darby testified the incident didn’t sound like a regular call about a suicidal person.

[READ MORE: Status call in murder case against Huntsville police officer rescheduled]

Darby was worried that the responding officers were walking into an ambush and he wanted to help. He responded to help set up a perimeter. When he arrived at Jeffery Parker’s home with his department issued shotgun loaded with a slug, one officer, officer Beckles, was outside on the front stoop and a second officer, officer Pegues, was inside talking with the armed man. Darby’s view of what was happening inside the house was blocked.

Darby said that he was desperate to see inside to know what Pegues was facing. He said Pegues had her hands down and was talking to the armed man. Darby said he feared for the officer’s life. Darby said he verbally reminded the officer to point her gun at the subject because he was armed. Darby feared that Pegues was about to be shot by Jeffery Parker. He didn’t feel that she was properly handling the situation.

He testified that Pegues was did not have control of what was happening and he started trying to coach her. He said the female officer raised her gun and lowered it saying “I don’t think he’s going to do it.” Darby testified at that point, we went into the home to check everything out and saw Jeffrey Parker on a couch with a gun pointed to his own head.

Darby said he focused on Parker’s face and the gun he was holding. Darby testified that he ordered Parker to drop his gun. He says Parker responded by shaking his head and refusing. Darby issued the same order again and says that Parker responded by shrugging his shoulders, causing the gun to move, and telling Darby he wouldn’t drop the gun. Darby said he could see “resolve" in Parker’s eyes that Parker had reached a decision and it put Darby “in grave fear.”

Darby was scared Parker was about to turn the gun on nearby police officers. Darby gave Parker one final warning and then fired one round when he saw Parker’s shoulders and gun move, in order to eliminate the threat and protect himself and other responding officers.

Darby testified that the three different officers had told Parker to put his gun down a total of seven times. He said given the circumstances, he had no other viable option and testified the home had an open floor plan so officers had no opportunities for cover or concealment.

Prosecutors said Darby did not have a firm grasp on the entire situation when he arrived on the scene, an assessment Darby said was inaccurate.

“My intent and hope was to get the situation under control and that he would put the gun down and be taken to the hospital to get the help he needed,” Darby said on the stand.

The state pointed out that between the other two officers, they had combined experience of 10 years, compared to Darby’s 18 months on the job, but Darby said they weren’t properly handling the situation and were not following policy and procedure. He didn’t think he could wait any longer, considering the circumstances, because at any point, the officers could be killed.

“Parker was responding, calm, not making any threats. You’re outside the house, you didn’t know what was happening and what was going on, his behavior, his demeanor,” said Tim Gann, chief trial attorney for the Madison County District Attorney’s Officer.

Darby fired back, saying he wasn’t willing to take a “wait and see approach” to see if everything turned out alright. He believed if he waited outside, Peguese would have been shot. He doesn’t feel that any of the officers knew what Parker’s true intent was and didn’t have any other choice at that time but to fire his weapon. Darby perceived that Parker meant them harm when he refused to drop his gun.

Officer Genisha Pegues was next to testify about what happened that day. She thought the situation with Parker could play out severl ways: suicide, suicide by cop or deescalation. She wanted to keep him talking to keep him engaged and keep him from hurting himself. Pegues did not feel that Parker was threatening her life. He was not yelling or cussing or making sudden movements. Darby showed up and shouted at her to point her gun at Parker and pushed past her and started giving commands, she told the court. She felt like she was deescalating the situation. She did not see Parker move the gun from his temple. She did not feel threatened or in danger. Parker is heard on video saying: “I’m not going to shoot you.”

Pegues did not see him make any aggressive or hostile acts to make her think she was in imminent danger. She explained that she didn’t back out because she didn’t think it was the right thing to do because she was already engaged with Parker.

She acknowledged that she didn’t have any cover or concealment but said she doesn’t take away her perception that she wasn’t in serious danger.

She acknowledged that Huntsville police officers are not trained to confront an armed subject without having concealment or cover or without having pistol trained on them and that Parker could have hurt her at any time.

The department found that she had poor threat assessment during the situation, and she went to remedial training.

Officer Justin Beckles, was next to testify. He now works as a police officer for DOD. He said Parker was not yelling or screaming at them and was answering questions. Beckles said he could tell Pegues was trying to control her breathing. When he went further inside with Darby, they told Parker to put the gun down and he refused.

“He didn’t seem hostile, just non-compliant,” Beckles said, adding that he never saw the gun leave Parker’s head.

He acknowledged that it’s HPD policy to find cover when confronting an armed subject and that Pegues put herself in a dangerous situation.

Beckles felt it was inevitable that the officers “would have to eliminate the threat due to non compliance.”

He confirmed that he had his finger on the trigger of his gun at the time.

Investigator Joshua Vogel, with HPD’s Major Crimes Unit, the lead investigator on the case, also testified.

He said Parker’s gun was a flare gun that had been painted black and resembled a revolver, but there was no way for the officers to know that on the other side of the room. Police found that the flare gun flares were actually altered to shoot buckshot, not flares.

Darby’s recorded statement to Vogel after the shooting was played in court. Darby said "this was a bad situation that was potentially going to get worse."

“I regret that it became necessary, but I do not regret my actions,” Darby added in the footage. “It was unfortunate, but I took the best action considering the circumstances. Deadly force is the last option after all other resources have been exhausted and there weren’t a lot of options in that room.”

Vogel said no drugs found in Parker’s system and that investigators did not find any hostile acts on Parker’s part.

Dr. Pete Blair, professor of criminal justice and executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, also testified.

Blair trains police officers around the country in active shooter response. Dr. Blair testified about the action, reaction concept. He conducted a study that looks at totality of the circumstances and it reinforced that action is faster than reaction, which reinforced training on how to deal with suspects who are armed and pose an extreme threat to officers. If a suspect begins to behave aggressively, there’s less time for the officer to react, he told the court.

Ron Kiker, training officer for Snead Police Department and guest training officer for Huntsville Police Department, was also called as a witness. He worked at the Northeast Alabama Police Academy for 11 years.

Kiker reiterated that action is faster than reaction when police are responding to situations.

“If an officer is waiting for a suspect to do something, the suspect will be able to do whatever that is before the officer can react,” he said.

He added that on average, a suspect can go from gun to their head to pointing it at someone else in three tenths of a second. It takes an officer five tenths of a second to respond to a complex visual stimulus.

Curtis Parker, FBI Special Agent and officer survival instructor, also testified.

Parker taught an officer survival training course at Redstone Arsenal, and Darby took part in the three day course last year.

Parker testified that it’s difficult for a police officer to respond to someone else’s behavior. He testified that making split second decisions forces an officer to look at the totality of a situation and take action to protect themselves from harm and that many different factors are involved. Parker did testify that he while he teaches police officers about armed suspect scenarios his training does not include a scenario where a suspect has a gun pointed to their own head. He teaches members of law enforcement what red flags to look for, including what to do when someone is armed and refuses to put their gun down.

BACKGROUND:

Darby is charged with murder following an April 2018 shooting. Jeffery Parker, 49, a suicidal caller, lost his life.

Huntsville police were called at 4:30 p.m. on April 3 to the 6400 block of Deramus Avenue regarding a possible suicidal person.

Parker, who was also the caller, stated he had a gun. During a brief verbal exchange, and after multiple commands for Parker to drop the weapon, one shot was fired by one of the officers, striking Parker, and he died as a result, Huntsville police said in a press release after the incident.

There were three officers on the scene.

An incident review board was convened after the officer-involved shooting and the city revealed that the panel found that "all officers involved performed within Huntsville Police Policies, Procedures and Training."

Also in attendance were representatives from the Madison County district attorney's office, Huntsville City Legal, Huntsville Police Department training staff and members from the Huntsville Citizen Advisory Council.

A review of the case included all video footage, physical evidence and officer testimony.

The case was then presented to a Madison County grand jury and the grand jury moved to indict Darby for murder.

A gag order is in place, preventing the prosecution and defense from making any statements to the media.

Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate will soon make the decision on Darby’s motion for immunity.

“I miss him dearly. His mother passed away two years ago. It was actually the last time I got to see him in the family but I got a chance to tell him what he means to me and I do miss him greatly and everyone else does in the family,” Bill Parks said about Jeffery Parker after Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s been quite a hard year considering the whole situation.”

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