BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WHNT) — The legal team for former Huntsville Police (HPD) officer William “Ben” Darby was in court Thursday for oral arguments in his murder conviction appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Darby was convicted of killing 49-year-old Jeffery Parker as he sat in his home on Deramus Avenue with a gun to his head in April 2018. Parker had called 911 and told a dispatcher he planned to shoot himself.
The Huntsville Police Department found the shooting was justified, but Darby was indicted for murder in 2018. The Madison County District Attorney’s Office argued throughout the case that Darby faced no imminent threat before he shot Parker and that he escalated a situation that other officers had under control.
Darby appealed his sentence and conviction. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, earlier this year, ordered oral arguments in the case on two issues: whether he was denied the right to a public trial by the trial judge, occasionally turning off the live feed available to the media and spectators as part of COVID-19 protocols. The other is if the judge properly instructed the jury on use of deadly force by a police officer.
Prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office and Darby’s attorneys were each given 30 minutes to argue by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Darby’s defense began arguments with the public trial issue. Darby’s Defense Attorney, Nick Lough, told the court that it denied Darby the constitutional right to a public trial.
Lough says the camera was turned on/off without justification. Lough argued that since Darby did not know the camera was being switched on and off in the spillover room, he could not object.
The defense argued the feed being cut off, regardless of how long, created total closure of the trial. They added that Darby did not waive his right to challenge the lack of a public trial.
Lough was asked if triviality analysis should apply, as in what was missed. He added that some testimony from an investigator was missed and another witness’s testimony was cut off. Lough said there’s no way to know the extent of what was cut off to the public.
Throughout the morning, Lough was asked by the Court about sending the case back for a hearing on the closure issue, but he said it’s a structural error that will only lead to another appearance before the court.
Defense Attorney J.D. Lloyd then rose, and told the Court this was a unique case with an intersection of police use of force and self-defense.
Lloyd then argued that while the state says a specific statute regarding police use of force wasn’t raised by the defense at the trial, the point was “clearly made” to the trial court, and the appeals court should consider it.
As the state rose, Alabama Assistant Attorney General Marc Starret began with former New York City Police Commissioner and later U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt quote, “No one is above or below the law. Starret said that Darby was “given a fair trial,” and now wants a do-over.
The state then questioned evidence used by the defense in claims about the camera being turned off. Starret then argued that the defense never objected during the trial about issues with the live feed, saying there were at least six instances where they had a chance to object.
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Starret was asked if a hearing was needed to close portions of the trial. He argued that the need for a hearing was waivable and ultimately up to the defendant to pursue, saying this was an instance of partial closure at best. According to the state, the defense was aware the microphone could be turned on and off.
The Court then asked if complete closure would be an automatic reversal or if the content of what was missed mattered.
Starret said court housekeeping matters are not the same as issues related to guilt and innocence and courts have found inadvertent brief closure during testimony is not a constitutional violation.
Starret was asked why police expert testimony was allowed and the state said it presented a full picture to the jury. He said the Court instructed on Alabama’s self-defense law, which applies to all people. The law says deadly force can be justified if a person reasonably believes they’re facing an imminent threat that could cause serious bodily injury or death to the person.
The state closed their arguments saying Darby was not held above or below the law, but that he was held to the law and his conviction should be upheld.
The defense closed their arguments by reiterating that they do not believe the judge shutting off the cameras was “partial closure” as argued by the state. They also reiterated that the court did not use reasonable officer standards, only self-defense in jury instructions.
For a full look into every minute during the arguments today, you can read Lawson’s live tweets from inside the courtroom here.
After oral arguments were finished, Former HPD Chief Mark McMurray stood with Darby’s defense team, including his wife, outside the courthouse, all wearing pins that read, “Stand with Darby.”
They expressed hope that Darby’s conviction would be overturned. Joining Darby supporters was former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick, who also said the conviction should be overturned.
News 19 will continue to follow Darby’s case and provide the latest updates.