By Ashley Remkus
A national police organization came to the defense of a Huntsville police officer convicted of murder, arguing that on-duty police should be judged on different standards than civilians when claiming self-defense.
The National Fraternal Order of Police in December filed an amicus brief on behalf of William Ben Darby, the former Huntsville officer, arguing his conviction last summer should be overturned. Darby is currently serving a 25-year sentence for murder.
In the 32-page brief to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the FOP argues that the trial court in Darby’s case should have instructed the jury to decide the case from the perspective of a reasonable police officer making split second decisions, a standard applied to on-duty officers when deciding civil cases.
“The circumstances in which Officer Darby found himself – and which provoked his shooting of Jeffrey Parker – were anything but circumstances experienced by civilians,” Larry H. James, general counsel for the FOP, wrote in the brief.
On the afternoon of April 3, 2018, Parker called police to report that he was feeling suicidal. When the first two officers arrived at Parker’s west Huntsville home, they found him sitting on a couch and holding what later turned out to be a flare gun to his own head.
Body camera footage showed Darby, the third officer to arrive on the scene, move past the two senior officers and shoot Parker in the face with a shotgun 11 seconds after entering the home. Before firing, Darby shouted four times for Parker to put down his gun.
At Darby’s trial, Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate instructed the jury on Alabama self-defense law, which says that a person is justified in using deadly force if they reasonably believe another person is using or about to use unlawful deadly force.
Alabama’s self-defense law does not carve out a special provision for police use of force in criminal cases.
The jury, after deliberating for about two hours, found Darby guilty of murder in the shooting of Parker.
The FOP argues that Pate should have given the jury instructions based on Supreme Court rulings in two key cases, Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner, which established what’s known as the “reasonableness” standard for judging use of force by police in civil cases.
James acknowledged that those two Supreme Court cases deal with civil liability, rather than criminal prosecutions. But he wrote that juries in criminal trials should also decide cases based on the “reasonableness” standard.
In the Graham case, the Supreme Court ruled that juries in civil cases against police are to consider the “split-second judgments” officers make, and judge whether force was reasonable “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Judge Pate declined requests from the defense to instruct the jury using language from those cases.
“The trial court erred by refusing to give the jury these instructions and instead placing Officer Darby in the position of a civilian,” the FOP brief says.
Darby’s attorneys have not yet filed his appeal brief. AL.com obtained a copy of the FOP’s amicus brief from the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office will be tasked with defending the conviction. The AG’s office has not yet responded to the brief in court filings. A spokesman said Marshall’s office declined to comment for this story.
At trial last summer, Darby testified that he that he shot Parker in defense of himself and two other officers because he feared Parker might shoot them.
But the first officer to respond that day testified against Darby. She told the jury that she was de-escalating the situation before Darby showed up with a shotgun.
Darby told the jury that he had to take over the situation from the first officer because he believed she was putting herself in danger by talking to Parker.
The jury found Darby guilty at the end of a weeklong trial in May. Pate sentenced Darby to 25 years in state prison.
The FOP brief says that courts in four other states have reviewed police convictions in criminal trials using the standards established in the Graham and Garner civil cases. The FOP argues that Darby’s case is an opportunity for the Alabama appeals court to set similar precedence.
The brief also cites a spike in violence in against police.
“More officers have died by gunfire in the line of duty in 2021 than they have in any other year,” the brief states. “Thus, today’s law enforcement officer is operating under extreme conditions. Officers know that they face an increased likelihood of violence aimed at them. The communities that those officers are sworn to protect and serve, however, turn to law enforcement to address rising levels of violent criminal activity.”