A former Alabama police officer convicted of murdering a man who called 911 threatening suicide in 2018 has been sentenced to 25 years in prison.
William Benjamin “Ben” Darby, 28, of Huntsville, was sentenced Friday for the murder of 49-year-old Jeffrey Louis Parker. A jury convicted Darby in May.
Tim Gann, the chief deputy district attorney of Madison County, said prosecutors are pleased with Darby’s sentence.
“At every turn, Mr. Darby refused to take any responsibility for what he did, and he would never admit that he did anything wrong,” Gann said Friday, according to The New York Times. “There was no remorse from him about the killing. There was no acknowledgment from him about the gravity of what he did. That was one of the most disturbing things about the case.”
Parker’s loved ones praised Genisha Pegues, one of Darby’s former colleagues, for trying to keep Parker alive in the precious few minutes before Darby killed him. Pegues and a second officer, Justin Beckles, were attempting to de-escalate the tense situation when Darby arrived.
“My brother would be alive today, I certainly believe that, if Pegues had stayed there and Darby never showed up,” Bill Parker said Friday, according to WAAY in Huntsville.
Pegues and Beckles also testified against Darby at trial.
Though an incident review board cleared Darby of wrongdoing following the shooting, Pegues and a Beckles were ordered to undergo remedial training. Pegues has since resigned from the department.
‘By no means a murderer’
Darby’s criminal case deeply divided officials in Huntsville and Madison County, who disagreed on whether the fatal shooting of Parker was justified. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, as well as city police Chief Mark McMurray, defended Darby to the end and kept him on the payroll even after his conviction.
McMurray said following the verdict that the jury’s decision left police officials “in the first stages of shock.”
“While we thank the jury for their service in this difficult case, I do not believe Officer Darby is a murderer,” McMurray said May 7, according to The Associated Press. “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.”
Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard vehemently disagreed, describing Darby’s actions as “off the charts.”
In addition to city officials’ staunch support of Darby, the city earmarked up to $125,000 to help fund his legal defense. On Friday, city officials confirmed that the entire amount had been spent by the end of Darby’s trial.
Gann said Friday that he was stunned by the level of support city officials had given Darby.
“It’s astonishing that they would have a guy indicted for murder and then go to the city council for money to defend him, and even after he’s convicted, continue to pay him,” Gann told the Times.
Battle also spoke out against the verdict in May.
“While I respect the jury’s opinion, I disagree with the verdict,” Battle said, according to AL.com in Huntsville. “We recognize this was a hard case with a lot of technical information to process. Officer Darby followed the appropriate safety protocols in his response on the scene.”
Battle said Darby was “doing what he was trained to do in the line of duty” when he shot Parker.
“Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights,” Battle said.
The news site reported that Darby resigned last month while awaiting sentencing.
The AP reported that the former officer pleaded for a light sentence as he spoke before the court Friday. He told Judge Donna Pate that he was haunted by Parker’s killing and would wake up in the night seeing the dead man’s face.
“There is no evil intent. There is no malice,” Darby said of his actions. “I am human. I am Christian. The taking of a human life was not lost on me.
“I’m asking for mercy. I’m asking for leniency.”
Prosecutor Gann argued, however, that Darby’s lack of willingness to admit wrongdoing, coupled with the “gravity of what he did to Jeffrey Parker,” warranted a stiff sentence.
Darby testified that he believed he and his colleagues were in “imminent danger” when he fired at Parker. He reiterated the stance he took when questioned by investigators immediately after the shooting.
“I regret it being necessary, but I do not regret my action,” Darby said in the recorded interview, which was viewed by jurors.
Parker’s best friend, Bill Parks, told reporters following the sentencing that Parker needed help the afternoon of April 3, 2018, when he called 911. Parker told a dispatcher that he was armed with a gun and, according to court documents related to a federal lawsuit, was “fixing to blow his brains out.”
Pegues and Beckles, who arrived several minutes before Darby, had the situation under control as they tried to talk Parker into surrendering his gun, Parks said.
Darby arrived at the home and, within seconds, he had shot Parker in the face with a shotgun.
The fatal shooting was recorded by all three officers’ body-worn cameras. City officials were lambasted by their critics, as well as local news media, when they refused to release the footage to the public.
“It’s stunning to me,” Parks said, according to the AP. “(Jeff) must have been sitting there going, ‘OK, things are good,’ and what, 11 seconds later, his face was blown off. Why?”
‘Point your (expletive) gun at him!’
According to police officials, patrol officers were called around 4:25 p.m. April 3 to Parker’s Deramus Avenue home. When Pegues and Beckles approached the house, with guns drawn but down in a neutral position, they found Parker sitting on his couch with his own gun to his head.
The weapon was later determined to be a flare gun that had been painted black, according to the federal lawsuit. According to WHNT in Huntsville, the flare had been removed from its cartridge, which had been reloaded with buckshot.
Pegues testified at Darby’s trial that, as the first officer to arrive, she took the lead.
“My goal was to see where he was as far as his mental state,” Pegues said, according to AL.com. “My goal was to keep him talking, (to) talk about other solutions than taking his life.”
As the officer tried to de-escalate the situation, Parker explained that he was on drugs and “in a bad place,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Pegues was able to engage in conversation with Parker,” the court document states. “During this conversation, neither Parker, Pegues or Beckles spoke with raised or aggressive voices. Parker never moved the flare gun he was holding to his own head.”
According to the bodycam footage, he also remained in the same position on the couch, with at least one of his Croc-clad feet up on the coffee table.
When Darby arrived five minutes after Pegues and Beckles, he grabbed a shotgun from his patrol car and ran to the front door of Parker’s home, where Pegues stood just inside as she talked to the distraught man. Beckles stood behind her, on Parker’s stoop.
Beckles testified at Darby’s trial that Darby, as the third officer on the scene, was there purely as backup. He told the court that Darby asked him no questions and that he had not asked Darby to do anything.
Nevertheless, Darby stepped past Beckles and Pegues, at whom he began yelling.
“Point your (expletive) gun at him! He can shoot you!” he screamed at Pegues, according to testimony and camera footage.
Pegues and Beckles had a combined total of more than 10 years of experience as police officers, the lawsuit states. Darby, who had graduated from the police academy in 2016, had 18 months of experience.
Both officers had seniority over Darby.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” Parker told Pegues as they spoke. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Pegues testified that Darby became a distraction when he arrived and started yelling. She also said that Darby and his shotgun actually forced her further into the house and closer to Parker, the lawsuit states.
Beckles, the most senior officer on the scene, testified he followed Darby into the house in an attempt to regain control of the situation.
As Pegues continued trying to keep Parker calm, Darby screamed at him several times to drop his gun.
“Please,” Pegues urged Parker. “Please. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“Put the gun down!” Darby screamed. “I’m not going to tell you again.”
Within 11 seconds of entering the house, Darby had shot Parker in the face from 19 feet away, the lawsuit states. Less than a minute had passed since Darby first arrived at the scene.
At trial, Pegues and Beckles testified that Parker had never moved from his spot on the couch.
“Parker made no threatening statements or gestures. Parker never moved the flare gun away from his head,” the lawsuit states. “Pegues testified that she never felt threatened by Parker, and that Parker was only a threat to himself.
“She said her ultimate goal was to get Parker some help.”
All three officers were put on administrative leave while the department investigated Darby’s shooting of Parker. Despite the incident review board’s decision that Darby had acted within policy, prosecutors put the case in front of a Madison County grand jury.
The grand jury handed down an indictment against Darby in August 2018.
“We believed in this case,” Broussard, the district attorney, said in May. “I’m not saying this is a pleasant day for us in the office, but it’s a day that justice dictated.
“The facts of the case bore out that there was nothing justified about this encounter with Mr. Parker, and justice was served.”
Darby faced 20 years to life in prison on the murder charge. Prosecutors sought at least 25 years in prison.
The defense sought the minimum sentence of 20 years. Darby’s supporters submitted more than 70 letters to the judge and multiple character witnesses testified Friday, including Darby’s wife, their pastor and Darby’s father, a semi-retired police officer from nearby Decatur.
Like her husband, Keelin Darby pleaded with the judge for leniency, according to WHNT in Huntsville.
“I need him in my life,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better husband, and I thank the Lord for him and what he stands for.”
Parks, Parker’s longtime friend, described the slain man as a kind soul who, like everyone, had his troubles.
“Jeff was a very smart guy, almost a Renaissance man,” Parks said, according to the news station. “He loved music. He could fix almost anything you asked him to do. He just asked for help.
“He wanted help and he ended up in a situation where he asked for help and it ended up terribly.”
Bill Parker said he hopes that his brother’s death can lead to better responses by police officers to mental health crises.
“I hope that (Jeff’s death) was not in vain,” Parker said. “Jeff was just a regular guy. He was just your normal human being.”