A Wake County jury spent less than two hours deliberating behind closed doors before finding a northeast Raleigh homeowner guilty of first-degree murder.
The sentencing hearing for Chad Copley is set for Friday.
The verdict followed closing arguments on Thursday morning.
The jury found Copley guilty of premeditated murder and determined that he launched a sniper-style attack and ambushed Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, 20, who was attending a party in Copley’s neighborhood.
“He wasn’t a hoodlum, he wasn’t a bad kid, he was a good kid,” his mother, Helen Simone Butler-Thomas, said after the verdict. Butler-Thomas, surrounded by family members, clutched a brown bear that contained an urn filled with her son’s ashes. “This is all we have of him left. Maybe he can rest now, knowing his name was cleared and he didn’t deserve to die on a curb.”
Days after the shooting, Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina legislator and lawyer, representing the family, described Copley as “George Zimmerman 2.0.” Zimmerman was a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman who was charged with killing Trayvon Martin during an altercation in 2012. Zimmerman was later exonerated.
“It’s been nearly two years for the family, waiting for a day like today to come,” Bamberg said after the verdict. “We anticipate life in prison, but it would be inaccurate to say today brings closure.”
Lawyers for Copley criticized the district attorney’s investigation during closing arguments Thursday.
Defense attorney Raymond Tarlton said the police “vaulted over the investigation and the search for the truth” because the 911 calls Copley made garnered attention from the national media.
Copley called 911 on Aug. 7, 2016, from his home on Singleleaf Lane 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.” He can be heard saying “I’m going to kill ’em” before the dispatcher came on the line.
Wake prosecutor Patrick Latour was dismissive of the defense attorney’s claims that national interest in the 911 calls caused the police to circumvent their investigation.
“I’m not saying it’s a dumb crook who calls 911 and rats himself, but that’s what he did,” Latour told jurors.
Tarlton told the jurors that investigators failed to determine who was the actual owner of a .38 Taurus revolver found in a parked car. Tarlton also said investigators did not check for signs of blood that might have indicated Thomas was 20 feet from the home when he was shot, nor did they search the home where Thomas had attended a party or put other witnesses on the stand who may have corroborated Copley’s claims of self-defense.
“There was a breakdown in the investigative process,” Tarlton said.
Tarlton’s co-counsel, Brad Pope, told the jurors that Thomas was armed, but one of the shooting victim’s friends removed the weapon.
The two attorneys asserted that under the state’s Castle doctrine, Copley had a right to use defensive force to protect his home and family because Thomas aimed a handgun at his home.
Just after 1 a.m. on Aug. 7, Copley opened his second-story bedroom window to yell at a group of young men who were standing in front of his home. Copley in testimony on Tuesday said one of the men aimed a gun at him and two others lifted their shirts to display handguns jammed into their waistbands. It’s not clear at what point during the verbal altercation that Copley pulled a Mossburg pump action shotgun from under his bed, loaded it with shells he kept on a nightstand and went downstairs to his darkened garage, where he fired the shotgun through a window and struck Thomas in the right arm.
Latour told the jurors that Thomas, a fast food employee, did not have a reputation for violence, and that he was running away when he was shot. The prosecutor scoffed at the defense attorneys’ assertion that Copley fired in self-defense and said the evidence showed that Copley launched a “surprise attack.”
Latour said no gun was found at the site and reminded jurors that Copley never told detectives that Thomas had pointed a gun at him and did not divulge that information until Tuesday when he took to the witness stand in his own defense.
“That’s a big, big difference because that’s how he’s able to plead self-defense,” Latour told the jurors. “He decided to get up here and try to fool you.”