James Samples shot and killed Candace Welch. It was malice murder. And he’ll never be free again. Judge Chris Phelps sentenced Samples Jan. 12 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the shooting death of his former girlfriend at his Garnett Ward Road residence Sept. 11, 2015. The murder was caught on Samples’ own surveillance camera. It showed Samples go to the back of a black SUV, grab a 40-caliber gun and approach Welch with two hands on the firearm. He fired from several feet away, piercing her heart. She ran toward him and he grabbed her in his arms. He then transported her to an Athens hospital where she died.

After a four-day trial, a Madison County jury found Samples guilty Dec. 9 of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during commission of a crime and possession of methamphetamine. He was sentenced Jan. 12 to life without parole for the murder and felony murder charges. He received 20 years confinement for the aggravated assault charge and three years confinement on the weapons and meth charges.

The killer, handcuffed and wearing and orange prison jump suit, sat quietly in the Madison County Commissioners’ meeting room Thursday afternoon, waiting on his attorney to arrive and for his sentence to be imposed. His family members sat behind him and the victim’s family sat on the other side of the aisle.

The victim’s mother, Kristy Watkins, testified at the commissioners’ table in front of district attorney Parks White. She showed obvious emotion at having lost her daughter. She remembered her child as a very bright young girl who had entered the world as an angel, born prematurely.

“We had such a strong bond,” she said of her daughter, who died at 22.

Watkins said Candace has a young daughter who still desperately wants her mama. She said this is utterly heartbreaking. She said it’s also painful that Candace can’t speak for herself anymore.

“It’s totally devastating,” said Watkins. “We live with this on a daily basis. It hurts to know that she has no way to speak for herself or say what she wants to do or become who she wants to become. It was taken away.”

Watkins said Samples should be held accountable for what he did.

“I’ll never get over this, but there can at least be justice for what happened,” she said, adding that she just wants her granddaughter to feel safe and secure.

Samples listened to Watkins and then he had an opportunity to speak before the judge imposed the sentence. He said he had rehearsed what he wanted to say. He asked Phelps if he could address Watkins directly and then he spoke to her from the commissioners’ table as she sat in the audience a few feet away, crying. He said at some point Watkins will have to forgive him for what he did. He said it was an accident.

“We used to be friends,” said Samples to Watkins. “I didn’t mean to kill Candace…I messed up. I did everything in my power to save her. I willingly went to the police and told them what happened. My main concern was Candace…I’m sorry for what I did, but it wasn’t purposeful. It was stupid playing around with guns. If I could give my life, I would, but it won’t bring her back…I didn’t leave her until they put her on the gurney at the hospital.”

White reminded Samples that though he said the shooting was an accident, the jury determined otherwise. It was deliberate. It was malice murder.

“It was proven that he intentionally murdered Candace Welch,” White told the judge. “He should be confined by the Department of Corrections until he is dead.”

The judge agreed.

But before imposing the sentence, Phelps told Samples that he did believe the killer had an “oh-my-goodness, what-have-I-done moment.” The judge said he received letters from Samples family members requesting leniency and that he had considered those letters. He also praised the efforts of Samples’ attorney, Morris Wiltshire of Athens.

But he said the video evidence showed that Samples walked to a vehicle, got a loaded firearm, turned toward the victim and fired, shooting her through the heart.

“And the jury had ample opportunity based on the evidence to consider the issue of voluntary manslaughter,” said Phelps. “But the jury has spoken and the jury said you killed her and with the intent to kill her. That’s what the guilty verdict on count one (malice murder) means.”

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