New trial ordered for Raleigh homeowner who was convicted in slaying of partygoer

‘I’m going to kill ’em’ heard at start of 911 call made by homeowner accused of murder

Chad Cameron Copley, 40, is charged with murder in the Aug. 7, 2016, death of 20-year-old Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas. The trial began on Thursday, February 15, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center.
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Chad Cameron Copley, 40, is charged with murder in the Aug. 7, 2016, death of 20-year-old Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas. The trial began on Thursday, February 15, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center.

Chad Copley, the Raleigh homeowner serving a life sentence for the 2016 slaying of a 20-year-old man leaving a party near his house, had his conviction overturned on appeal Tuesday.

The 2-1 decision, from a three-judge panel on the N.C. Court of Appeals, grants Copley a new trial for the death of Kouren Thomas.

Copley, 40 at the time of his conviction, had called 911 the night of the shooting and told a dispatcher that he was “locked and loaded” and on his way to “secure” his neighborhood from what he called a “bunch of hoodlums.”

In his May 7 opinion, Judge John M. Tyson ruled that the Wake County prosecutor in the case improperly injected race into his closing arguments.

“The prosecutor’s argument that the defendant shot Thomas because he was black is not supported by any evidence and is wholly gratuitous and inflammatory.”

District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is in jury selection for another trial and had not yet read the opinion Tuesday. But she said typically her office will ask the N. C. Supreme Court for a review before any decision about a new trial.

Justice Euvka says he was about fifteen feet behind Thomas when he was shot on Aug. 7, 2016 in front of Chad Copley’s home during his testimony on Monday, February 19, 2018 in Raleigh.

Comparisons to Trayvon Martin

The August 2016 shooting drew comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, in which an unarmed black teen was killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. After Thomas was killed, a lawyer representing his family described Copley as “George Zimmerman 2.0.”

But the appeals court ruled that race was “irrelevant” in Copley’s case, and that the presiding judge erred by overruling the defense’s objections during closing arguments.

The trial sprang from a neighborhood party a few doors down from Copley’s house on Singleleaf Lane off U.S. 401 in northeast Raleigh. Thomas attended the party. Copley called 911 describing a “bunch of hoodlums” on the street outside, and before speaking to the dispatcher, he could be heard saying, “I’m going to kill ’em.”

During his trial, Copley testified that one man aimed a gun at him and two others lifted their shirts to show firearms in their waistbands. He yelled at the group in the street and someone yelled back “Go inside, white boy” before Copley took a shotgun from under his bed and fired it through the window of his darkened garage.

Defendant Chad Copley becomes emotional on the witness stand after describing shooting Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas and being asked if he has any regrets. Copley is charged with murder in the August 7, 2016 shooting. Copley was inside his garage w

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Latour argued at the time that Copley launched a “surprise attack,” dismissing the notion that the homeowner fired in self-defense.

Copley takes the stand on Tuesday, February, 20, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh, N.C. He is charged with murder in the August 7, 2016 shooting of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas. Wake County District Attorney cross-examines Copley.

In its decision, the appeals court dwelled on the prosecutor’s statements to the jury during closing arguments, including:

“The undercurrent that the defendant brought up to you in his closing argument is what did he mean by hoodlums? I never told you what he meant by hoodlums ... Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. If they want to go there, consider it. And is it relevant for you? Because we talked about that self-defense issue, right, and reasonable fear. What is a reasonable fear? You get to determine what’s reasonable. Ask yourself if Kourey Thomas and these people outside were a bunch of young, white males walking around wearing N.C. State hats, is he laying dead bleeding in that yard?”

Wake County Sheriff’s Deputy J. Ekkens describes the gun he found in Chad Copley’s home and the scene outside the home during his testimony on Monday, February 19, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center in Raleigh.

‘Hoodlum’ connotation

In his opinion, Tyson wrote that the word “hoodlum” has no racial connotation, either by its dictionary definition or in Copley’s trial. The prosecutor drew attention to the defendant being white and the victim being black, unjustifiably suggesting the jury consider Copley a racist.

Listen to a series of 911 calls from Silverleaf Lane including one in which a North Raleigh man tells a dispatcher that he is 'locked and loaded' and another in which he says he has fired “a warning shot” at a bunch of “hoodlums” outside. Police s

“The prosecutor’s comments improperly cast Defendant as a racist, and his comment implying race was ‘the elephant in the room’ is a brazen and inflammatory attempt to interject race as a motive,” Tyson wrote.

Appeals Court Judge Donna Stroud sided with Tyson.

In his dissent, Judge John Arrowood wrote that the state brought up race in a brief and non-derogatory way.

“Under the facts of this case,” he wrote, “where the State’s evidence showed a lone, agitated white defendant threatened a large group of black individuals, defendant alleged they referred to him as a “white boy,” and then hid and waited, eventually shooting a young black man who entered the area along the curb of his yard, 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.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.