Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Liz Sennett Murder



Charles Sennett was many things to many people. When he met the future mother of his children, he portrayed himself as a grieving widower. To the Sheffield congregation where he served as pulpit minister, he appeared to be a man who loved the word of God. To congregant Doris Tidwell, he presented a man unhappy in his marriage to a profligate wife. To those who knew him away from Colbert County, he was a sometime high roller who spent money he didn't have. If he had lived long enough to be professionally evaluated for his crimes, he would have in all probability been diagnosed as a sociopath, a man who loved only himself and would stop at nothing to get what he thought he deserved in life.

Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett thought the man she married had tragically lost his first wife at a young age. After the brutal murder of the woman friends called Liz, many who knew the minister well announced their fears that the death of the first Mrs. Sennett was suspicious; however, with no living suspect, there was little or no investigation into the previous death.

Charles Sennett lived on a modest income from preaching, investments, and other endeavors, but he never had much money--at least for long. After the death of his heavily insured second wife, many speculated the good minister had a gambling problem, but as with suspicions concerning his first wife, these claims were never fully investigated.

Doris Tidwell knew her minister as someone who took both an emotional and physical interest in her, someone who seemed to need money through no fault of his own. When Sennett asked his lover for $3,000.00 to repay a bank loan, she gladly gave it to him. Instead the preacher contacted Billy Gray Williams, a black man who rented property from him. Williams later contended he didn't realize his landlord was seeking a hit man, but a Colbert County jury dismissed Williams' claims, convicting him of felony murder for his role in the slaying of Liz Se
nnett.

Williams, a Florence resident, then approached John Forrest Parker and Kenneth Eugene Smith, contracting with them to commit the crime for $1,000.00 each. The three defendants in the case were tried separately, but because of Williams' race, Parker had once contended that blacks were unfairly dismissed from the jury pool during his trial. This and other appeals were denied, and he died by lethal injection at 6:41 p.m. yesterday. Smith has not yet had an execution date scheduled, and Williams is serving a sentence of Life without the Possibility of Parole for his part in facilitating the murder.

What of Charles Sennett? Colbert County investigators informed the minister on the first day of the murder investigation that he was a suspect in his wife's death. One week later, Sennett was found dead at a relative's home, shot in the chest and ostensibly a suicide. Why ostensibly?

We have received communications that there were questions about his alleged suicide note and many believe a relative of Liz Sennett killed her husband in retribution. Do we believe it? Nothing can be ascertained at this late date, nor do we believe Charles Sennett's death should be further investigated; however, we have always found it odd that a true sociopath would take his own life. Now the pieces of the puzzle seem complete.


*****

It took less than a month to arrest John Forrest Parker in the brutal March 18,1988, slaying of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett of Cherokee. In another year, the then 20 year-old Parker was tried and convicted in the murder of the Colbert County woman. Now, 21 years later, Parker is about to pay the ultimate penalty for his part in the death of this unwanted wife.

John Parker has such a low IQ that he spent most of his Florence school years in special education programs. The same can be said for his partner in the murder for hire, Kenneth Eugene Smith. Together, they entered the Sennett home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road and beat Mrs. Sennett into submission, then gouged her eyes out and eviscerated the minister's wife.

Parker had no previous criminal history, and his friends and family contended the youth was not capable of committing such a violent crime. Parker's court appointed attorneys, Tom Heflin and Gene Hamby, obviously felt the best they could do for their client was to ensure a sentence of Life without the Possibility of Parole, asking potential jurors in Judge Inge Johnson's courtroom how they viewed the death penalty.

The attorneys also asked for a change in venue due to the amount of local publicity the crime had garnered, as well as Judge Johnson's recusal since she had presided over the trial of Billy Gray Williams, the Florence man who recruited Parker and Smith to carry out the actual crime. Both requests were denied, even though Judge Pride Tompkins had already moved Smith's trial to Birmingham.

After two days of jury selection, the trial began; Colbert County District Attorney Gary Alverson prese
nted incontrovertible evidence that the two Florence youths had committed the heinous murder. According to testimony at the trial, Parker himself initially approached Colbert County Investigator Ronnie May, a friend of Parker's brother. Parker informed May that he had been paid one thousand dollars for the use of his car and that Williams and Smith had committed the actual crime.

May became suspicious of Parker's story, and further questioning revealed Parker was under the influence of illicit drugs on the day of the murder. Before asking for an attorney, Parker also agreed to a second interview with May in which he confessed to holding Mrs. Sennett down while Smith repeatedly stabbed her with a survival knife. Reportedly, at that time Parker knelt, asked God's forgiveness, and stated he needed help.

Parker's two attorneys could offer little in rebuttal of the confession, and after a relatively short deliberation, the jury found John Forrest Parker guilty of capital murder, recommending that he spend the remainder of his natural life in prison. Judge Johnson stated the murder for hire was so brutal that she would not honor the recommendation, but sentenced the Florence man to death.

Over the past 20 years, attorneys for Parker have presented numerous appeals to various courts on behalf of their client. Now, there are no more appeals, no more chances for Parker to cheat his sentence. Barring any last minute surprises, the State of Alabama will tonight take the life of John Forrest Parker. Whether we agree with the death penalty or not, 20 years is too long for a family to wait for justice.


*****

After the execution of John Forrest Parker, many aspects of the case were again considered and debated. Several area residents have stood by the account of Sennett's first marriage, while members of his family have denied it. Others have again questioned the degree of Parker's involvement in the murder, while still others have asked new questions concerning Charles Sennett's suicide--perhaps stemming directly from the influence of the Drive-By Truckers' song entitled The Fireplace Poker. Parker's accomplice has yet to be executed; we can expect more revelations at that time.


The above was taken from Shoalanda Speaks originally published June10-11, 2010. Artwork by John Forrest Parker.