The trial has finally begun for the man who in 2017 shot and killed one woman and wounded seven others at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. Prosecutors are arguing that the gunman, who is black, was racially motivated, while his defense maintains he was mentally ill. The church, in the meantime, has been pursuing healing and the difficult work of forgiveness.
According to The Christian Chronicle, Pastor Joey Spann says the shooting has changed how the church worships: “We do not go to church anymore. We gather to worship. We come together. I’m reminded of the first century Christians and how every time they gathered had to be an exciting thing and a special thing because there were those who were trying to take it away from them… Well, we do that at Burnette Chapel.”
The Day of the Shooting
The attack happened the morning of Sunday, September 24, 2017. According to CNN, Emanuel Kidega Samson arrived at the church parking lot shortly before church was over and waited for people to start leaving. Melanie Crow Smith, the first person to exit the building, according to The Christian Chronicle, was shot and killed as she headed to her car.
Samson shot another woman in the leg before entering the building and continuing to shoot at random. There were about 50 people inside. It is likely that Samson would have killed and/or injured many more people than he did had not usher Robert Engle confronted him. Engle sustained injuries from the encounter and Samson suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound, although it is not clear whether or not he shot himself by mistake. Engle was able to retrieve his gun from his car and use it to keep Samson at bay until police arrived.
According to CNN, Samson, a Sudanese man who was a legal resident of the U.S., had had several encounters with police earlier in 2017. Officers were called twice because of domestic disturbances involving Samson, and later in June, Samson’s father called the police because Samson had been allegedly threatening to kill himself.
Samson had also regularly attended Burnette Chapel a few years before the shooting. The Christian Chronicle reports he had eaten meals with church members and had even helped with vacation Bible school. Samson was masked during the shooting, and the churchgoers were shocked when they learned who he was. Several people recalled him being friendly. One longtime member said, “I knew him. I had given him a ride before. I have eaten lunch with him before. I thought, ‘What in the world?’”
What Motivated Samson?
Immediately after the shooting, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation, although they did not say why. At the time, Spann told The Washington Times he didn’t believe that Samson was racially motivated.
The prosecution, who is seeking life without parole, points to a note in Samson’s car that refers to the shooting that occurred at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, when white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine people.
During an opening statement in Samson’s trial, Nashville Deputy District Attorney Amy Hunter quoted Samson’s note as saying, “Dylann Roof is less than nothing. The blood that 10 of your kind will shed is that of the color upon the RBG flag in terms of vengeance.” RBG refers to the Pan-African flag. The prosecution believes that Samson intended to kill at least 10 white people the morning of the shooting.
The defense argues that Samson was driven to the attack because he was suicidal. His lawyer, Jennifer Lynn Thompson, said, “What this case is about is a man who was very sad, very suicidal, and he was looking to die that day.” According to a report made at a hearing in April, a psychiatrist found Samson to have a variety of mental illnesses, including “schizoaffective disorder bipolar type” and PTSD from childhood abuse.
The psychiatrist also reported that Samson “heard voices, hallucinated and had intense mood swings,” in addition to having “‘delusional beliefs’ about predicting the future and controlling people with his mind.” It was not clear whether this diagnosis met the insanity defense legal standard.
Rebuilding and Healing
Recovering from the trauma of that day has been a process for the members of Burnette Chapel, and not an easy one. Spann told The Christian Chronicle that his granddaughter had been there that morning, but had headed in the opposite direction as Smith and survived. “If he killed her, I don’t know where I would be,” said Spann.
Nevertheless, a year after the shooting, Spann said that he and his church were praying for Samson: “We want him to come out of this with a clear heart toward God and his life right with God.”