Trial begins for homeowner whose ‘warning shot’ left man dead in his front yard

A North Raleigh man called 911 one August night in 2016 and told a dispatcher that he had fired “a warning shot” at a bunch of “hoodlums” outside.

Police say that warning shot killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in Chad Cameron Copley’s front yard.

Jury selection began Monday in the first-degree murder trial of Copley, 40. Sixty prospective jurors filed into a seventh-floor courtroom at the Wake County Justice Center on Monday morning to begin receiving instructions from Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha.

He told jurors that Copley has entered a plea of not guilty in the Aug. 17, 2016 shooting of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas. Investigators said Copley was inside his garage on Singleleaf Lane when he fired a shotgun, hitting Thomas, who was outside.

Prior to the jurors’ arrival in the courtroom, O’Foghludha asked Copley’s attorneys, Brad Pope and Raymond Tarlton of Raleigh, whether the not guilty plea should include not guilty by reason of self-defense or because the shooting was an accident. Pope told the court that Copley would only enter a not guilty plea.

Days after the shooting, several experts told The News & Observer that it was not clear whether North Carolina’s “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws would allow the use of deadly force the night Thomas was shot. The state’s laws give leniency to those who use weapons to protect themselves.

UNC law professor Joseph Kennedy said even if Thomas had been carrying 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.

Investigators say that a late Saturday night party in Copley’s neighborhood had segued into early Sunday morning. Copley called 911 from inside his home to say that there was a “bunch of hoodlums” outside and that he was “locked and loaded” and going to secure his neighborhood, according to a copy of the 911 recording police made public after the shooting.

Thomas had come to the neighborhood about 12:30 a.m. to attend a party two doors down from Copley’s house, according to a friend, David Walker of Raleigh. Walker said he and Thomas were among the last to arrive for the party and that he parked his Ford Taurus behind “a string of cars.”

“You need to send PD as quickly as possible,” Copley told the dispatcher. “I’m on neighborhood watch. I’m gonna have the neighbors with me. There’s hoodlums out here racing up and down the street. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning, um, there’s some vandalism.”

Walker said Thomas saw what he thought were police lights. He said his friend wanted to avoid a confrontation because “he had a little weed on him,” so he took off running toward Walker’s Taurus.

“I’m looking at him running the whole time,” Walker said Monday. “I yelled at him, ‘We good now, stop running.’ He turned his head back to me, and that’s when a shot went off. We didn’t know that it came from the house. We were all looking around like, who got a gun?”

Shortly after the shooting, a woman called 911 from inside Copley’s house. After her brief conversation with a dispatcher, Copley, who made the initial call, came on the phone.

“We have a lot of people outside our house, yelling and shouting profanities,” he said. “I yelled at them, ‘Please leave the premises.’ They were showing a firearm, so I fired a warning shot and, uh, we got somebody that got hit.”

“Someone was shot?” the operator asked.

“Well, I don’t know if they were shot or not, ma’am,” he told her. “I fired my warning shot like I’m supposed to by law. They do have firearms, and I’m trying to protect myself and my family.”

The operator asked who had come to his house.

“Ma’am, I don’t know who they are,” the man said. “There’s frigging black males outside my frigging house with firearms. Please send PD.”

Then he hung up.

The day after the shooting, glass lay in the driveway and front lawn where the blast apparently came through the window. Blood stains and bloody gauze were left in the yard about 30 feet from the garage, a few feet from the street.

Copley has been in custody at the Wake County jail since his arrest on the day of the shooting.

His trial is expected to last two weeks, O’Foghludha told prospective jurors Monday.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald

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