Minister Joey Spann watched Friday as 27-year-old Emanuel Kidega Samson was convicted of first-degree murder for killing one person and wounding seven others when he sprayed Spann’s church and its congregants with bullets in 2017.
It was hard for Spann to recognize in Samson the same young man who taught Vacation Bible School at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Nashville just years before, and who would sit up front with his cousins to hear Spann preach on Sundays.
Spann said he had thought the world of Samson in those days. And Samson praised everyone from the church on the witness stand, calling them receptive, kind, warm and compassionate.
Recollections of Samson as a young, eager fellow churchgoer were sprinkled throughout testimony by Spann and his multicultural congregation, who wrestled with grief and anger and struggled to forgive as they relived the shooting rampage in court this week. The impact was evident watching Spann gesture during trial testimony. One of his fingers is gone because of the shooting.
For Spann, the contrast became starkest when they heard recordings of Samson and his ex-girlfriend laughing on the phone about the victims and bragging about how good he looked in media coverage. In one call recorded on the jail line, Samson’s ex-girlfriend ridicules Spann for telling reporters about how he told his wife he thought he was dying when he was shot and bleeding from the chest.
Spann said the congregation still hasn’t heard Samson say, “I’m sorry.”
“It angered me. And knowing the guy we knew, it’s been hard for the last year and a half to two years to want that boy in jail forever,” Spann told reporters Friday. “But it’s not hard to want this guy in jail forever.”
Samson, who was convicted on all 43 counts, is black and the victims are white. He left a note about a 2015 massacre at a South Carolina black church and aimed to kill at least 10 white churchgoers in revenge, prosecutors said. Jurors will consider a life sentence without parole, and could reach a decision as soon as Tuesday.
Samson testified that he didn’t remember committing the crime. He said his mental health disorders have caused lapses in memory and constant shifts from feelings of ecstasy to the suicidal thoughts he said he experienced the morning of the shooting. He’s on medication now in jail, and that has slowed down his thoughts, he has testified.
On the day of the shooting, Melanie L. Crow of Smyrna, Tennessee, had walked out to the car to get a cough drop after the service ended. The 38-year-old mother of two was shot down in the parking lot and dropped her Bible and her notes from church. Donning a motorcycle-style clown mask, Samson followed up with a blaze of bullets inside the church.
At trial, the judge limited what could be said in front of jurors about Samson’s mental illnesses. Defense attorney Jennifer Lynn Thompson said the case was deemed not to meet the criteria for an insanity defense.
Before the trial, the judge largely shielded details about the case from public view. At an open hearing in April, it was revealed that a psychiatrist diagnosed Samson with “schizoaffective disorder bipolar type” and post-traumatic stress disorder after an abusive, violent upbringing, which his sister began detailing at the start of his sentencing hearing Friday.
For Armilla Bishop, Samson had been a part of her church family. Then just a few years later, the nurse found herself in a bullet-riddled house of worship rendering critical aid to minister Spann’s chest wound.
“They’ve helped us push cars out of the middle of the road. We’ve eaten together,” Bishop said of Samson and his cousins when they attended Burnette. “They’ve helped us do Vacation Bible School skits. They were involved, always trying to learn more and trying to grow.”
“We loved them. They were sweet, sweet young men,” she said.
Spann said there was some disagreement in the congregation over whether the death penalty should have been sought. But with life without parole now the goal, Spann said he hopes the Samson he once knew comes back — even if it’s in a prison cell where he might spend the rest of his life.
“He was at an early age and I would think, through experience, that he chose the wrong path and was influenced by the wrong people,” Spann said. “I wish he had been coming up that day and just come in. He was at the right place, just came for the wrong reason.”