The Associated Press
Until last week, he didn’t think it was possible legally to release such videos in Alabama. That’s what city lawyers told him, he said, as the city beat back his efforts to make bodycam footage more accessible to the public.
“Well now you’ve had a judge release it, so obviously it is in the realm of possibility,” said Meredith, who represents west Huntsville. “It’s time to take another look at public policy regarding bodycam release.”
Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate late last Friday ordered that bodycam footage used at the murder trial of Huntsville police officer William Ben Darby be released to AL.com and other news outlets.
She allowed the release despite the last-minute objection from the city, which argued investigative materials should never be public under state law. The judge disagreed.
For three years, the city declined to release the images – despite also assuring the public that the officer acted within policy and opting to spend public money on his criminal defense.
After consulting with city lawyers on a bodycam resolution earlier this year, Meredith ended up introducing a different resolution — one he described as a first-step compromise. The resolution, unanimously approved by the City Council on July 22, said the council was “expressing the desire” that the Huntsville Police Department publish its bodycam policies online.
The city at the time told AL.com that Meredith’s initial proposal to make the footage more accessible to the public would be “unenforceable” and “contradict state law.”
“I mean no disrespect to the legal advice we had already been given,” said Meredith this week, “but a judge — who, at least in my novice mind, is more of an authority than a lawyer — said this is fine to release. It makes me want to re-evaluate what is possible when it comes to the release of bodycams.”
Trey Riley, the Huntsville city attorney, did not return a call for comment.
AL.com on Monday reached out to each member of the Huntsville City Council to ask whether they had watched the footage and what their reactions were.
Bill Kling, who for decades has represented the central part of the city, said he had not watched the footage of Darby killing Jeff Parker. But Kling, who joined Meredith in support of a bodycam resolution earlier this year, said he is getting back to work on making police video more accessible to the public.
Meredith said he believes the public had an interest in access to the Darby footage.
Meredith wasn’t on the council at the time, but in 2018 after Darby was arrested and charged with murder, Meredith’s colleagues voted to spend up to $125,000 in public money to pay for Darby’s legal defense. The council resolution approving the first round of funding said the shooting was “within the line and scope of his duty.”
Council members told AL.com at the time that they voted without seeing the bodycam footage. The city denied requests to release the footage to the public.
After Darby’s conviction, city councilman Devyn Keith on May 13 called his vote to fund the defense a “mistake” that he made “without all the facts.” He joined Meredith and Kling in support of making bodycams more accessible to the public.
Keith, who represents north Huntsville, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Other city leaders — Mayor Battle and police Chief Mark McMurray — have continued to defend Darby, and even questioned the jury’s guilty verdict.
Darby remained on the city payroll for more than three years after he killed Parker. He resigned in late July — a month before Judge Pate sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
Will Culver, a former Huntsville police officer, was on the council back in 2018. He was the only member to oppose funding Darby’s defense with tax dollars.
Culver, who lost to Meredith in a 2020 runoff election for the west Huntsville seat on the council, called for a federal civil rights investigation of the city and police department in an interview with AL.com this week. After watching the Darby video, he also said it’s time for a new police chief.
“How can the public have confidence in a chief of police and a mayor who vehemently support and condone that kind of behavior?” said Culver.
The three bodycam videos from that day in April of 2018 show an officer speaking to Parker, who had called police and threatened to shoot himself. He was seated on a couch, holding what turned out to be a flare gun to his head.
The footage shows Darby arrive third on the scene, grab a shotgun, run to the house, and tell the first officer to aim her weapon at Parker. In the video, Darby pushes past the second officer and tells Parker to drop his weapon before shooting him in the face. Darby was in the house 11 seconds before pulling the trigger.
The first officer, who had been in the house talking to Parker, testified against Darby and said she had been de-escalating the situation.
At trial Darby said he went into the house and shot Parker in defense of himself and the other two officers.
The full video from Darby’s bodycam, shows him later cover his bodycam at about the 14 minute 47 second mark as he removes a backpack from the trunk of his patrol car. That move was discussed at trial, but the contents of the backpack were never identified.
“As a private citizen now, I can see why we lose confidence in our elected leaders and in our law enforcement,” Culver said on Monday. “Don’t get me wrong there are a heck of a lot of good officers out there on the streets, but I see why.”
Council President Jennie Robinson, who represents south Huntsville, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Frances Akridge, who represents the east part of the city, said she watched the Darby footage. She sent a short sentence to AL.com via email.
“My response to any lethal event,” wrote Akridge, “especially when documented by still or video camera is the same: it hits me in the gut and it makes me extremely sad for mankind.”