HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Prosecutors are preparing to try Madison Police officer Eric Parker for a third time on federal excessive force charges in a case that has drawn international headlines.
What is less well-known is that the trial judge has held multiple closed-door hearings involving Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey, court records show.
WHNT News 19 learned during the first Parker trial that a number of Madison Police Department officers took part in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala, apparently over communications Muncey had with them regarding their testimony.
Muncey moved to fire Eric Parker and pushed for a misdemeanor criminal charge against him following Parker’s takedown of a 57-year-old Indian man during an encounter in February. Police dashcam video of the head-first takedown – which left Sureshbhai Patel with serious injuries – drew international criticism.
Court records show U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala also held a Sept. 21 hearing that discussed Muncey’s email criticism of a defense expert witness.
AL.com has also reviewed the record and spoke to the defense witness, karate instructor Johnny Lee Smith Friday. Smith told AL.com he notified the court about Muncey's email.
Muncey emailed leading police officials around the state during the first Parker trial about a karate instructor who testified on Parker's behalf. In the email he pledged to review whether Smith should be allowed to continue to provide law enforcement training, court records show.
Smith, a Cullman-based karate instructor, is the co-creator of the self-defense training program taught at Alabama’s police academies.
Police training has been an issue in the Parker case. The government alleges Parker used unlawful excessive force in taking down Patel.
Parker is facing a federal civil rights charge, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, for the takedown of Patel. Patel suffered a spinal injury and partial paralysis after being thrown head-first to the ground.
Muncey's email notes that Smith testified he saw 'nothing in the video that went against prevailing police training.'
The chief then questions whether Smith “and his program are the best options for our State’s self-defense training.”
The chief also seems to predict future court cases if Smith is allowed to continue in his present trainer role.
“If he sees nothing wrong with Parker’s use of force, we (State) will certainly revisit issues like this again,” the chief wrote in the email.
The defense has presented two Alabama police training experts, including Smith, who testified Parker’s takedown of Patel was botched because Parker slipped.
Federal prosecutors offered testimony from a police training supervisor from Louisiana, who testified that Parker did perform a leg sweep on Patel. The move was “extremely violent” and not part of any known police training, said Kenny Sanders, a captain with the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Department.
The Sept. 21 hearing appears to be the second time the court addressed Muncey’s actions involving trial witnesses.
Court asked to unseal records
Some of the court record, including transcripts of a nearly daylong, closed-door hearing on Sept. 8, is sealed. Several Madison Police Department officers testified during that hearing, which took place in the middle of the first Parker trial.
WHNT News 19 and AL.com have sent a letter to the court asking that the Sept. 8 transcript and any related orders be unsealed because it is a “significant matter of public interest” and relates to the ongoing functioning of the Madison Police Department.
The court had a brief conference call with attorneys in the case on Nov. 13. Judge Haikala asked about unsealing the requested records. Both the prosecution and defense said they did not object to the request. The prosecution also told the court they are prepared to try Parker again.
Parker has gone to trial twice and the jury deadlocked both times. A third trial depends on the judge’s ruling on the defense’s motion that she acquit Parker due to a lack of evidence. The motion was filed Nov. 4, after the jury said it was deadlocked and the court declared a mistrial.
If the judge rules in Parker’s favor, the case is over. If she denies the defense motion, a third trial will be scheduled.
Muncey’s attorney Jerry Barclay told the court during the Sept. 21 hearing that the chief did send an email regarding Smith’s testimony. The email went to board members of the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. Barclay defended the contents of the email, according to the transcript.
“I will be happy to say I don’t see any effort in the email itself or in my conversations with the Chief to exact retribution or retaliate against someone,” Barclay said. “I think it is not only his right, but his affirmative duty if he perceived a problem with training to draw it to the attention of the folks that certify the trainers and have a conversation about it.”
The transcript in the Sept. 21 hearing doesn’t include any more discussion about Muncey’s email concerning Smith.
Smith testified again at Parker’s second trial. He said Parker’s technique was correct in stopping Patel and he was justified in being concerned that Patel might have a weapon. But Smith faulted Parker’s takedown, saying it was poorly executed, not part of any law enforcement training and that Parker appeared to slip.
Closed-door hearing during first trial
The transcript also shows Barclay told the court Muncey brought the email to court on Sept. 8, for the closed-door hearing. He said the chief followed the judge's instructions to bring to court all emails he’d sent relating to the Parker case.
But, the issue didn’t come up on Sept. 8, Barclay said.
“The court devoted a great deal of effort to what the officers testified to and we were never actually asked to produce the email,” Barclay told Haikala.
The court’s closed-door hearing on Sept. 8 took most of the day. It occurred during the first Parker trial. Court records show several Madison Police Department officers testified during that hearing. While the transcript of the hearing is still under a court-ordered seal, WHNT News 19 has learned the hearing reviewed whether Muncey had contact with officers regarding their testimony in the Parker case.
Some officers testified in the first trial that Parker's takedown of Patel was not justified, while others testified it was consistent with department policy.
Details are limited, but the issue is referred to in the Sept. 21 transcript. Judge Haikala notes Muncey and Madison Police Captain Terrell Cook were asked Sept. 8 about testimony from the officers.
The judge said she spoke to lawyers for Muncey and Cook regarding “the substance of the information the court received from witnesses in those sealed proceedings.”
Haikala said she did so to give Muncey and Cook an opportunity to provide testimony themselves, but they chose not to.
“They took the fifth,” the judge said.
Muncey also appeared with his attorney during a closed-hearing on Oct. 6. The court issued an order in the case three days later, but it remains sealed.