Defense attorneys on Monday tried to paint a scene of frantic, threatening party-goers near the home of a northeast Raleigh man who is on trial for the 2016 shooting death of a 20-year-old.
Veteran police officer J.L. Campbell told the court he was assaulted by a woman after the shooting that took the life of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas. Wake County sheriff’s deputy J. Ekkens testified that some people from the party became upset when investigators detained them, but the only gun found at the scene was the .12-gauge shotgun that was used to kill Thomas.
“The only gun that I saw was the shotgun inside the house,” Ekkens said.
Investigators say Chad Cameron Copley, a homeowner on Singleleaf Lane, fired a single shotgun blast through his garage window at about 1 a.m. on Aug. 7, 2016. The shot fatally wounded Thomas, who was running at the edge of Copely’s front yard.
Copley, 40, is charged with first-degree murder. Monday marked the first day his defense attorneys presented evidence they hope will exonerate their client, who they say had reason to fear for his life the night of the shooting.
The case has drawn comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida and raised questions about how far a homeowner can go to protect his property from what he perceives to be a threat. It has also raised questions about Copley’s state of mind at the time of the shooting and whether the killing was premeditated because of comments made at the beginning of a 911 call.
Last week, prosecutors presented testimony that described Copley calling emergency dispatchers to let them know he was “locked and loaded” and on his way to “secure” his neighborhood from what he alleged were a “bunch of hoodlums.”
Wake County prosecutor Patrick Latour told jurors about part of the 911 call that was recorded before dispatchers came on the line.
“What it records Chad saying,” Latour said, “is ‘I’m going to kill ’em.’ ”
Ekkens, the sheriff’s deputy, told the courtroom Monday that he had stopped a car in the Neuse Crossing subdivision, about 100 yards from the scene of the shooting that took place in the 3000 block of Singleleaf Lane. Ekkens said he noticed the smell of marijuana and was about to detain the people in the car when a man, later identified as Teshon Omar Swinson, ran up to the him and said someone had been shot.
Ekkens and another deputy patrolling the neighborhood raced down Singleleaf Lane to the scene of the shooting, where they found about 20 people in the street. Thomas lying on his stomach at the edge of Copley’s front yard, and a young woman was kneeling beside him.
The crowd, who had attended a party two doors down from the shooting scene, was “eerily calm,” when they arrived, Ekkens said. But when the deputies began detaining and handcuffing the party-goers, some became upset.
Ekkens and accused drug dealer Justice Tochukwu Evuka were among several people who testified Monday for the defense, although their comments sometimes ran counter to the attorneys’ claims of a frantic scene.
Evuka was at the party and said it hadn’t gotten rowdy. No one was arguing, breaking into homes or vandalizing property, and then Thomas was struck by gunfire seemingly out of nowhere, he said.
“The party was a good party,” said Evuka, 22, who walked into the courtroom clad in an orange-and-white-striped jail jumpsuit after his arrest in February on felony marijuana charges. “Everybody was focused on having a good time until the police showed up.”
Evuka said party-goers saw flashing blue lights from a law enforcement car moments before Thomas was shot, and they thought police had arrived to to break up the party.
“He ran past me,” Evuka said of Thomas. “I turned around to see if the police were coming, then I turned back around, but before I could start running he had been shot. I asked him if he shot himself based on how he was running. I reasoned he had a firearm the way he was running because I heard a gunshot and didn’t see where it came from.”
Evuka said Thomas hit the ground a few feet in front of him. Thomas was screaming for help, he said, but all he could do was stare.
Police later found a gun in the white, Chevrolet Malibu that Evuka rode in to the party. He was later charged with a probation violation for being around a firearm.
“I stayed with him the entire night until the police detained me,” he said. “I didn’t run away because the moment overwhelmed me and it was more important than fearing the police. The police were more focused on detaining us than watching somebody die, and he wasn’t even given CPR.”