The man who called 911 to report a shooting at his house that took the life of a 20-year-old man early Sunday told a dispatcher that he was trying to protect himself and his family from a “bunch of hoodlums” outside.
But it’s not clear that North Carolina law would allow the use of deadly force that night by Chad Cameron Copley, whom police have charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas.
The state’s so-called “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws give leniency to those who use weapons to protect themselves. The “stand your ground” law in Florida helped exonerate a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, after he was charged with killing teen Trayvon Martin during an altercation in 2012.
But N.C. Central University Law School professor and defense attorney Irving Joyner says a home or vehicle occupant can shoot someone only if there is a threat of serious bodily injury or death.
“Unless there is some physical danger that the person is facing, it would seem to me that the use of fatal force isn’t justified,” said Joyner, who said he doesn’t recall any recent North Carolina cases where the two self-defense laws have been used.
The man in the 911 call said there were people outside his house on Singleleaf Lane yelling and shouting profanities after midnight Sunday and that he yelled at them to leave. He also said the people outside were armed.
Police say Copley was inside his garage when he fired a shotgun, hitting Thomas, who fell on the lawn a few feet from the street.
David Walker, a friend who was with Thomas when they came to the neighborhood to attend a party, said they did not hear anybody yelling or shouting profanities prior to the shooting. Walker also said Thomas didn’t have a gun, nor did they see anyone else with one.
UNC law professor Joseph Kennedy said even if Thomas did have a gun, Copley would not have been justified in shooting him unless there was a credible threat to his or someone else’s life.
“You can’t shoot people simply because people are cursing at you,” Kennedy said.
Efforts to reach Copley’s attorney, Raymond Tarlton, by phone were unsuccessful. In a short press release, Tarlton asked that people not rush to judgment in the case.
The man who called police from the house on Singleleaf Lane said he fired a warning shot “like I’m supposed to by law.” It’s not clear what law he was referring to, but neither the castle doctrine or stand your ground laws refer to warning shots.
Kennedy said the concept of a warning shot is impractical. If someone shoots at a person for whatever reason, that person is allowed by law to shoot back in self-defense, Kennedy said.
“A warning shot is in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “If I fire a gun at you and I miss, how do you know that that’s a warning shot?”
In recent years, nearly half of all states have passed laws relieving citizens of the obligation to retreat in the face of an intruder or threat instead of using deadly force. The laws vary from state to state. Some apply only to one’s home or office. Others cover any location where a person encounters a threat.
Dennis Kenny, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said based on the 911 calls and the details about the case that have been released so far, he can’t see how Copley could successfully argue self-defense.
“I think any court would have a difficult time with that argument,” Kenny said, “because then anyone could shoot someone they were fearful of.”
North Carolina law
The “Castle Doctrine” law, 14-51.2
The lawful occupant of a home, motor vehicle, or workplace is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to another if both of the following apply:
(1) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a home, motor vehicle, or workplace, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the home, motor vehicle, or workplace.
(2) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
The “Stand Your Ground” law, 14-51.3
A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that the conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat in any place he or she has the lawful right to be if either of the following applies:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.
(2) Under the circumstances permitted pursuant to G.S. 14-51.2.