City officials in Huntsville are refusing to release body camera video and other records regarding a police officer who is charged with murder in the shooting of a mentally-ill man.
The Huntsville City Attorney’s Office has denied a public records request from AL.com for Officer William Darby’s personnel file and records relating to the fatal shooting of 49-year-old Jeffrey Parker.
The shooting was captured by multiple officers’ body cameras. Prosecutors said the footage was included in evidence presented to a grand jury, which voted to indict Darby on Friday. Police Chief Mark McMurray said at a press conference that Darby “is by no means a murderer.” The chief didn’t take questions from reporters, and a gag order has since been issued by the judge.
“Much of what you have addressed concerns investigative material and is not considered public record,” said Assistant City Attorney Eddie Blair in an email to AL.com
In Alabama, police departments generally deny requests to release body camera videos.
Dennis Bailey, an attorney for the Alabama Press Association, said courts haven’t yet clarified whether body camera video is public record.
“There’s a good argument for that being considered public record,” Bailey said.
In Mobile, TV station WALA/FOX10 is suing the city for release of body camera footage of an incident in which a group of McGill Toolen students were pepper sprayed.
“The outcome of that case will give us insight into what the law may be,” Bailey said of the TV station’s lawsuit.
In Huntsville, the city also has denied AL.com access to Darby’s personnel file, despite a longstanding 1995 opinion from then-Attorney General of Alabama, Jeff Sessions, which says personnel files of government employees are considered public records.
There are some exceptions for medical or other personal information, Bailey said.
“When such information is requested, the party refusing to disclose should remember it has the burden of proving the information requested falls within an exception to the Open Records Act,” Sessions’ 1995 opinion says.
The city of Huntsville didn’t say which laws exempt it from disclosing the requested records.
“Since this matter is now a pending case, we would not be able to address your request, as anything involving a party to that case could be considered evidence,” Blair said in his email.
Bailey said that although Darby’s personnel file might be included in the investigative file, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a public record.
“The Supreme Court has said the fact you’ve given the public record to an investigator doesn’t mean it’s no longer public record,” Bailey said.
Additionally, the city has pointed to a gag order issued by Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate as justification for denying AL.com’s public records request.
However, the judge’s order only applies to parties in the criminal case, which include the Madison County District Attorney’s Office, Darby, his defense team and law enforcement.
“The city would not be a party to the gag order,” Bailey said. “Usually a gag order prohibits the trial participants from speaking to the press. It should have no effect on what’s a public record and it should have no effect on the records custodian releasing public records.”
Darby, a two-year employee of HPD, fatally shot Parker on April 3. Parker called police that day, saying he was suicidal and had a gun, according to the police department. Officers briefly talked with Parker at the scene on Deramus Avenue and commanded him to drop the gun, the department said. When Parker didn’t drop the gun, Darby shot him, the police said.
Darby and two other officers were placed on desk duty at the time of the shooting, but a review board later cleared them.
Murder is punishable by up to life in prison.
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