published Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Former LaFayette police sergeant Sam Parker appeals murder conviction

  • photo
    Sam Parker enters Judge Jon "Bo" Wood's courtroom on a motion for a new trial hearing in Walker County Superior Court in Lafayette, Ga., in 2012.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A quick peek at the wrong moment was the difference between freedom and imprisonment.

That's what David Dunn, public defender for convicted wife killer Samuel Logan Parker, argued Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the former police sergeant's appeal of his conviction and life sentence for the murder of his third wife, Theresa Parker, a Walker County 911 operator.

Dunn told the Supreme Court that Walker County deputies conducted an illegal search, that the prosecutor built her case around a character assassination of Sam Parker since there was no physical evidence of his wife's death five years ago, and that the judge in the case improperly accepted that evidence. The judge also put unfair pressure on the jury to reach a decision after deliberating for three days. These errors were serious enough to warrant dismissal of charges, Dunn said.

He said that, after Theresa Parker's friend reported to police that she was worried about Theresa in March 2007, two Walker County sheriff's deputies found an empty house and looked inside the Parkers' garage when they weren't allowed.

On the left side of the garage, they found Sam's LaFayette Police Department vehicle. On the right side, where Theresa's Toyota 4Runner should have sat, they found nothing. They also found Sam Parker's truck outside the garage, and days later they found the 4Runner back in its place -- though no one ever saw Theresa again.

When Theresa's family reported her missing, members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation asked Sam Parker where he was the night his wife had last been seen. He told them he had been cruising in his truck.

But investigators knew that wasn't true because the truck had been home when deputies checked on the Parkers. The inconsistency in Sam Parker's story was a key point during a September 2009 trial in which he was found guilty.

But on Monday, Dunn said that evidence should never have been allowed in the trial. The garage doors, which opened manually instead of electronically, were closed when the deputies arrived.

They looked inside without a warrant, Dunn said. That violated Parker's constitutional right protecting him from illegal searches, he said. Dunn made the same argument before the trial, but Walker County Superior Court Chief Judge Jon "Bo" Wood rejected it.

That, the public defender argued Monday, was a mistake.

"The Supreme Court has stated quite clearly that a trespass is forbidden," Dunn said. "We had a trespass here, and it was fatal to my client."

Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson, who prosecuted the case in 2009, argued the deputies were allowed to search the Parkers' garage because they were actually on a welfare check.

The deputies went to the Parkers' home that day because Theresa Parker's friend called and told them she was worried about Theresa's safety. She and Sam were in the process of divorcing, and the friend knew that Sam had a history of physically abusing his wife.

"They went to see if Theresa was OK," Patterson said Monday.

Theresa Parker's disappearance -- and the ensuing prosecution of her husband -- sparked national attention. Sam Parker was seen as a complex figure, a police officer who could save children from burning buildings but also crack jokes about domestic violence.

That sense of humor translated to abuse of those close to Sam Parker, prosecutors argued during the trial. Another ex-wife said he beat her several times and claimed he could get away with murdering her. Theresa's family members testified that Sam threatened to kill them as well.

A major problem in the case was a body, or lack thereof. Theresa's remains were not found until September 2010 -- one year after a jury convicted Sam Parker of murder and Wood, the Walker County judge, sentenced him to life in prison.

When Theresa Parker's remains were found, her husband said new evidence should exonerate him. One of his friends had testified that Sam Parker called him in 2007 and claimed to have shot his wife in the head.

Theresa's skeletal remains did not show any evidence of being shot.

But Patterson argued this did not mean Sam Parker was innocent. Police did not find Theresa Parker's entire skull, and even if they had, the prosecution did not only rely on a theory that Sam Parker shot his wife. They also said he might have choked her to death.

Nevertheless, Dunn asked Wood to reconsider the case in April 2012, given the new evidence. Wood denied the request, so Dunn sent his appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Georgia's top court has about six months to rule on the case.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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