RALEIGH, N.C. -- A white homeowner who fatally shot an unarmed black man after reporting "hoodlums" in his neighborhood should get a new trial because the prosecutor gratuitously injected race in his closing argument, North Carolina's second-highest court ruled Tuesday.
In the split 2-1 decision, the panel of the state Court of Appeals ruled that Raleigh resident Chad Copley, 42, deserves another trial in the August 2016 shooting death of Kouren Thomas, 20. Copley was convicted last year of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for shooting.
Thomas was leaving a nearby house party when Copley fired a shotgun blast from inside his garage. Copley had testified that he feared for his family's safety after seeing men display guns while leaving the party. Witnesses testified at Copley's trial that Thomas was unarmed, and prosecutors told jurors that no gun was found where Thomas fell to the ground.
Under cross-examination, Copley acknowledged that he lied to police nearly a dozen times, including false accounts of people racing on his small residential street and vandalizing property and saying he fired a warning shot before killing Thomas.
An attorney for the victim's family describes Thomas as "George Zimmerman 2.0," referring to the ex-neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida who fatally shot unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin 2012. Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, was acquitted on grounds of self-defense in the shooting in Sanford, Florida.
Although the prosecutor, Patrick Latour, said in closing arguments that evidence showed Copley was "scared of these black males," no such evidence was presented to the jury, the state Court of Appeals ruled. It said the only evidence about race presented at trial was that members of the group outside Copley's home had told him to "go inside, white boy" after he shouted at them to be quiet.
The decision didn't name Latour, who tried the case as assistant district attorney in Wake County.
Judge John Tyson wrote in Tuesday's decision, with which Judge Donna Stroud concurred, that "race was irrelevant in the case. There's no connection between the "white boy" remark "and the invidious inference that defendant held an irrational fear or exhibited hatred of Thomas and other black partygoers to allow this closing argument," the opinion states. "The prosecutor's remarks are a wholly gratuitous injection of race into the trial and were improper."
When Copley's attorney objected at trial to the prosecutor's closing argument, Superior Court Judge Michael O'Foghludha overruled him.
On the 911 call, Copley said he had only fired a warning shot and said: "There's frigging black males outside my frigging house with firearms. Please send PD."
"I am locked and loaded," he said on the call. "I'm going outside to secure my neighborhood."
Copley testified during his trial that he would refer to his own son as a "hoodlum."
In his dissent, Judge John Arrowood wrote that the trial judge didn't err in allowing the closing argument because of the facts of the case, which showed "a long, agitated white defendant threatened a large group of black individuals" and that Copley alleged they referred to him "as a 'white boy,' then hid and waited, eventually shooting a young black man who entered the area along the curb of his yard."
A spokeswoman said the state attorney general's office is reviewing the decision, which can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg, an attorney representing Thomas' family, said the family disagrees with the decision but will trust the process. "At the end of the day, Mr. Copley operated as if he were George Zimmerman 2.0, and he killed a young man who had not done anything wrong, who didn't deserve to die," Bamberg said.
Bamberg thanked the Wake County district attorney for "pursuing these charges when, in lot of parts of the country, the district attorneys wouldn't have the grit to do it."
Defense attorney Marilyn Ozer, who is representing Copley on appeal, said the appeals court decision was correct because "prosecutors have a duty beyond the case. They have a duty to seek justice. In this case, playing the racial card in closing arguments was not warranted by the evidence."
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