Emanuel Kidega Samson, 27, was convicted of first-degree murder Friday in the death of 38-year-old Melanie Crow. The jurors deliberated for fewer than two hours Tuesday before passing sentence. Samson is also due to be sentenced in July on 42 other criminal counts, though those sentences will be largely symbolic.
Prosecutors said Samson shot Crow on Sept. 24, 2017, as she was walking to fetch a cough drop from her car outside the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in the Nashville suburb of Antioch. Samson, a former congregant at the church, shot Crow once in the face and three times in the back, the Tennessean reported.
After shooting Crow, Samson entered the church wearing a clown mask and tactical vest and opened fire inside.
Investigators found a note inside Samson’s car that indicated the shooting was payback for the June 2015 massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in which white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans during a Bible study session.
"Dylann Roof is less than nothing," the note found in Samson's car read. "The blood that 10 of your kind will shed is that of the color upon the RBG [Pan-African] flag in terms of vengeance."
Samson is black and his victims were white. During his trial, jurors heard jail calls from October 2017 in which Samson laughed about the shooting with his then-girlfriend. At one point, Samson said he heard the victims saying "some funny s---" when he was on the floor of the sanctuary after being shot during a tussle with a churchgoer.
Defense attorney Jennifer Lynn Thompson had argued for leniency, saying that even with parole, Samson would be 76 years old before he could leave prison. In closing arguments, she suggested to the jury that the "genuine Mr. Samson" was polite, kind and helpful, as some churchgoers recalled his demeanor in years before the murder.
In prerecorded testimony, forensic psychiatrist Stephen Montgomery said Samson suffered from mental illness, but added that illness did not make Samson unable to premediate his actions or stop him from appreciating their wrongfulness.
Montgomery said Samson is being treated for schizoaffective disorder and likely also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from a childhood spent in a refugee camp in Africa and then an abusive home in the United States.
The testimony about Samson's mental illness was suppressed during the verdict phase of the trial because it did not meet the criteria for an insanity defense.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Hunter said the jurors should remember Samson's victims, including those who witnessed the shooting but were uninjured.
Hunter said she wants jurors to remember "the children who are now afraid to come back to church — the children who say, 'If I go to church today, am I going to die?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.