On most mornings, Michele Louthan woke to her fiancé, Jeffery Parker, in their Huntsville, Alabama, home asking her what day it was. They had attended the same high school during the 1980s and after reconnecting in 2017, the two decided to get married this year on April 20. “In 21 more days you’ll officially be Mrs. Parker,” Parker would tell her, counting down the days.
On April 3, Louthan instead awakened to the sound of heavy stomping downstairs. This struck her as strange and frightening because she thought Parker had gone to the store. There was shouting, with a woman’s voice being the loudest, and then an unmistakable “pow”: the sound of a gunshot ringing through the house.
Parker, a 49-year-old plumber and musician with three grandchildren who affectionately called him “Papa Jeff,” was shot to death by a Huntsville police officer in the home he shared with Louthan after he had called 911 to report that he was suicidal and had a gun. Parker suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a home invasion in the early 2000s, according to Louthan. After a “brief verbal exchange” in which police say officers instructed Parker to drop his gun, Officer William Darby fired one shot, killing him. Louthan later wrote that Parker’s gun was most likely a flare gun that he painted black. She declined an interview with The Appeal because of a gag order that the judge issued to all parties involved in the case.
To Taylor Lively, Parker’s death occurred not because he posed a threat, but because of excessive force by the police. “Knowing Jeff, I know he didn’t deserve to die,” Lively told The Appeal. “Bad policies and procedures, as well as an itchy trigger finger led to the death of my friend who wouldn’t hurt a soul.”
The Huntsville police chief supported Darby, issuing a press release after his arrest in August, declaring that he is “by no means a ‘Murderer.’” In May, a police incident review board cleared Darby, finding that he had acted in accordance with departmental policy that permits the use of force in situations in which an officer feels threatened.
But Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard said he was “gravely concerned” by the review board decision and that the case should go to a grand jury. “Usually what you are looking at [is] whether an officer reasonably feared for his life before he was forced to take deadly physical force,” Broussard said, “and on these particular facts of the case we had concern that this was not a justified shooting and because of that we put it to a grand jury.” Grand juries rarely hand down indictments in police killings, even in high-profile cases like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. In 2015, California became the first state to ban grand juries in police shooting cases because, according to one state senator, “the use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”
But on Aug. 3, a Madison County grand jury indicted Darby for murder. This was the first time in Broussard’s 30 years as Madison County district attorney that he prosecuted a police officer for murder, an attorney from his office told The Appeal.
Since the indictment, however, the Huntsville Police Department has refused to release body camera footage to the public because of “matters of privacy,” a City Hall spokeswoman told The Appeal. And Mayor Tommy Battle has publicly blasted Broussard’s decision to bring the police killing to a grand jury. “We have a different opinion than the district attorney has,” Battle said after an Aug. 9 City Council meeting. During that meeting, the five-member council voted to use city funds to pay for $75,000 of Darby’s defense, an idea for which Battle claimed credit. Four out of the five council members said they had not seen the body camera footage before voting 4-0, with one abstention, to authorize the payment. Citing the gag order, which they are not under, City Council members and Battle declined requests for comment from The Appeal.
“It is odd and particularly troubling for a mayor to be interfering in the prosecution of any criminal case,” Angela J. Davis, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law and expert in criminal law and procedure, told The Appeal. “He is clearly biased towards the police officer, and his public statements may taint the jury pool. He’s basically saying that the grand jury, who are the citizens of this city, were wrong in executing their duties on the grand jury and that’s just extraordinarily and and incredibly inappropriate for him to do that.”
Because Battle is not under the judge’s gag order, Davis explained, he cannot be legally prevented from talking about the case.
Lively, Parker’s friend, told that The Appeal that he’s angry with Battle for both defending Darby and arguing for the city to fund the officer’s defense. But he said he isn’t surprised by Battle’s behavior, given that Madison County has a history of excessive force by the police. In February 2015, Sureshbhai Patel was thrown to the ground by a Madison police officer who confronted the then 57-year-old after the department received a call from a neighbor describing him as suspicious and claiming he was looking into garages. (According to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Patel, however, “whether there actually was a call or whether the caller actually accused Patel of looking into garages cannot be verified because to date the City refuses to release any recordings or reports that exist related to the incident.”) Patel was left partially paralyzed from the incident and his family claimed that Patel, who was visiting his grandson in Madison from his home in India, did not understand the officer during the encounter.
“Of course he is going to” defend Darby, Lively said of Battle. “He doesn’t want it to look like there’s a problem with his city and police brutality or ill trained officers.”
Huntsville Police spokesman Michael Johnson refused to answer questions about the Darby case, saying instead that “there’s a lot of questions and that will come out in trial,” which is scheduled for Oct. 29.
Parker’s friends and family, meanwhile, want to know how a cry for help during a mental health crisis ended in a fatal police shooting.
“He called the police because he wanted help to stay alive,” Lively said, “to help to keep him from hurting himself … not help to kill himself.”