A Wake County man who was convicted of first-degree murder is entitled to a new trial because the trial judge allowed racially-charged statements from the prosecution during closing arguments that biased the jury, a divided North Carolina Court of Appeals panel has ruled.
Chad Copley shot and killed Kourey Thomas, who was in Copley’s yard in the early morning hours of August 6, 2016. Prosecutors say that Copley was awakened by a neighbor’s house party, and Thomas, who was leaving the party, was only passing through the yard to get to his friend’s car when Copley shot him from inside his darkened garage without warning.
Copley contends that he had had a verbal altercation moments before the shooting with people who were parked in front of his home and being noisy, and that they had threatened him by showing him their guns. Copley says he retrieved his shotgun, loaded it, and went to his garage, from which he yelled for people to leave and warned them he was armed. Soon thereafter, he says, Thomas came running toward the house with a gun brandished, and Copley shot him through the window.
The jury convicted Copley of first-degree murder by premeditation and deliberation and by lying in wait, and Judge Michael O’Foghludha sentenced him to life in prison without parole. On appeal, Copley argued that O’Foghludha had erred in overruling his objections to a prosecutor’s statements during closing arguments arguing that Copley, who is white, was frightened because the partygoers were black and likely would not have fired his gun if Thomas had been white.
Judge John Tyson, writing for the majority, said that “superfluous injections of race into closing arguments” is prohibited by Supreme Court precedent, as such “gratuitous appeals to racial prejudice ‘tend to degrade the administration of justice.’” While claims of racial prejudice are relevant to prove motive in some cases, Tyson said these must only be raised in instances where the evidence supports this.
“[No] evidence presented to the jury in this case tends to suggest Defendant had a racially motivated reason for shooting Thomas,” Tyson said. “Nothing in the evidence presented to the jury tends to support this assertion in the prosecutor’s argument that Defendant feared or bore racial hatred towards the individuals outside of his home because they were black … Race was irrelevant to Defendant’s case.”
The State’s argument that Copley might have thought the individuals were gang members because of their race was also deemed as offensive, invalid and not supported by the evidence.
“No logical connection exists between Defendant recounting that he was referred to as ‘white boy’ by those individuals outside his home and the prosecutor’s invidious inference that Defendant held an irrational fear or exhibited hatred of Thomas and the other black partygoers to allow this closing argument,” Tyson said, while also pointing out that the timing of the statements—during the State’s final rebuttal argument to the jury—left the defense without an opportunity to respond other than by objecting.
Because courts in other states have granted new trials on similar grounds, and the North Carolina Supreme Court in a 2002 ruling in State v. Jones granted a new trial after a court erroneously allowed a prosecutor to make statements comparing an alleged crime to the Columbine school shooting and the Oklahoma City bombing, even though they were entirely unrelated, Tyson said there was sufficient precedent to grant a new trial.
Although Tyson said the court would not consider Copley’s other arguments, it was important that the jury on remand be instructed on the proper definition of “home” as it applies to a “defense of habitation,” to include a person’s yard.
“A jury instruction given at a trial, based upon the current pattern instruction, could lead a jury to believe defense of habitation is only appropriate when an intruder has entered, or was attempting to enter a physical house or structure, and not the curtilage or other statutorily defined and included areas,” Tyson said.
Judge John Arrowood dissented from the majority, saying the trial court correctly overruled the defendant’s objections.
“Under the facts of this case, where the State’s evidence showed a lone, agitated white defendant threatened by a large group of black individuals, defendant alleged they referred to him as ‘white boy,’ and then hid and waited, eventually shooting a young black man who entered the area along the curb of his yard,” Arrowood said, “the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the State’s closing argument to acknowledge the potential for racial bias as a factor affecting the crime.”
Marilyn Ozer of Massengale and Ozer in Chapel Hill represented Copley in the case. She said in an email that she thought the decision was “fair and well reasoned,” and noted the significance of the majority’s decision to include a person’s yard as part of a property’s “curtilage” for jury instructions on a “defense of habitation.”
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Hyde represented the state in the case. Press officials from the attorney general’s office declined to comment other than to say they are reviewing the decision.
The 39-page decision is State v. Copley (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-119-19). The full text of the decision is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
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