Staff Photo by Tim Barber
Two LaFayette police officers stand guard in front of the Walker County Courthouse on Thursday as the Sam Parker verdict is released.
LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- When Theresa Parker's mother, Claire Careathers, prayed, she told her daughter she wouldn't rest until there was justice -- and Thursday afternoon justice was served.
"It took such a toll on (my mom)," Ms. Careathers' daughter Hilda Wilson said of Sam Parker's murder trial. "She was just so weak. But she said, 'I told (Theresa) I would not stop until I got justice.'"
After a nearly three-week trial, former LaFayette police officer Mr. Parker was convicted of killing his wife -- more than two years after she disappeared.
Walker County Superior Court Judge Jon "Bo" Wood sentenced Mr. Parker to life plus five years for each of the other two felonies that drew guilty verdicts -- violation of oath as a public officer and making false statements during an investigation.
District Attorney Leigh Patterson said Thursday afternoon she thinks the entire combination of evidence convinced the jury that Mr. Parker was guilty. She said testimony about Mr. Parker's violent past could have helped them make their decision.
"We are just happy justice is being served," she said. "I'm glad they gave us the decision they did."
WAITING FOR A VERDICT
Family, friends and members of the public had been waiting since Monday afternoon for a verdict. The jury had waffled during deliberation and some worried that there would be a hung jury and the judge would declare a mistrial.
At about 4:30 p.m., just as everyone was prepared to come back for another day of waiting, Ms. Parker's niece Amanda Gilbert yelled across the street to her mother, Mrs. Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson and her three daughters scurried up the courtroom stairs. Mrs. Wilson's husband, Jon Wilson, followed behind, carrying the couple's 2-year-old son, Jon Jr., and whispering to him that it was time to be quiet.
Word spread through the courtroom that a verdict was expected. About 50 people waited, sometimes in almost complete silence.
Guards took their places around the courtroom -- two behind Mr. Parker, three at each exit. The judge warned the crowd not to show emotion when the decision was read. Walker County's Court Clerk Carter Brown read the verdicts. The family wept silently and Mr. Parker awaited his sentencing.
"I'm sure you know there is only one sentence that can be imposed on the first count (of murder)," Judge Wood said to Mr. Parker.
The judge asked Mr. Parker if he had anything to say. He didn't and Judge Wood sentenced him to the "rest of your natural life" in a state penitentiary.
"You need to go with the sheriff now," Judge Wood told Mr. Parker, before a single deputy escorted him out holding him by the right arm.
CLOSURE FOR FAMILY, COMMUNITY
The search for Mrs. Parker began in March 2007 and captivated the community. Both Parkers were well-known since they both worked in public service.
Hundreds of volunteers looked for her body during numerous searches. Thursday afternoon Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said it was suspicious that one person -- Mr. Parker -- didn't help look.
"I think that was a red flag to law enforcement," he said.
Ever since Mrs. Parker disappeared area residents kept up with the story and its every twist and turn. It was hard to find many people who outwardly defended Mr. Parker, except his family.
As the days turned into months and months to years and still no body was found, Mrs. Parker's family and friends from the Walker County 911 center held prayer vigils and fundraisers.
On Thursday, Tina Cook, who worked with Mrs. Parker at Walker County 911, immediately called her fellow dispatchers to give them the news.
"They were crying and happy," she said. "It was the best we could've hoped for."
During the three-week trial and deliberation as many as 100 people came to the courthouse -- some staying all day, every day -- to see how the story would end.
After the verdict, LaFayette residents Judy Howard and Pat Spears said they didn't know Mrs. Parker's family until the trial started but said they were compelled to come and support them. When the decision finally came, the best friends were overcome with emotion and cried together on the courthouse lawn.
Ms. Spears said she was shocked that Mr. Parker didn't show emotion when the verdict was read. Ms. Howard said she is afraid they will never find Mrs. Parker's body.
"I'm very happy (with the verdict)," she said. "If he could've just stood up and said, 'OK. I'll tell you where it is.'"
But Ms. Patterson, Mrs. Parker's family and Sheriff Wilson said the search for Mrs. Parker's body never will stop.
"It's not over for us," Mrs. Wilson said. "My sister is still out there somewhere. We will never stop looking."
One of Sam Parker's lawyers, Assistant Public Defender Doug Woodruff, said that the defense team will appeal the verdict. "The first step will be done (today) as far as filing the motion," Mr. Woodruff said. "Beyond that it is ... hard to put a timeline on it."