State Supreme Court rejects new murder trial for Wake homeowner

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court will not grant a new trial to a Wake County man convicted of murder after using a castle-doctrine defense.
  • It's the second time the state's highest court has ruled against Chad Cameron Copley.
  • Supreme Court justices rejected Copley's arguments that the prosecutor's closing statements and the court's jury instructions tainted his conviction.

The North Carolina Supreme Court will not grant a new trial to a Wake County man convicted of murder after he shot and killed another man who was walking through his yard in 2016.

Chad Cameron Copley had argued that the prosecutor’s closing statements and the court’s jury instructions in his case tainted his conviction.

It’s the second time Copley’s case reached North Carolina’s highest court. Justices reversed the state Appeals Court in 2020 by ruling that a prosecutor had not prejudiced Copley’s case with a reference to race. Copley is white. Shooting victim Kourey Thomas was black.

In his latest appeal, Copley objected to the prosecutor’s description of Copley’s actions on the night of the shooting. As people stood at the edge of his yard after leaving a nearby party, Copley argued with them from an upstairs window in his house. He then called 911, grabbed a shotgun, and headed to his garage.

“[T]he closing remarks did not dilute Mr. Copley’s right to defend his dwelling from unlawful entry,” wrote Justice Anita Earls. “The prosecutor correctly explained that Mr. Copley ‘doesn’t have to retreat from his home,’ before noting that ‘it’s not retreating to stay upstairs.’ In context, then, the prosecutor merely observed that Mr. Copley intentionally placed himself closer to the action.”

“So despite Mr. Copley’s arguments, the challenged statements did not invoke the aggressor doctrine, saddle Mr. Copley with a duty to retreat in his home, or disclaim his right to lawfully defend his dwelling,” Earls added. “Because Mr. Copley has not identified an improper statement in the prosecutor’s closing argument, he falters at the first step of the gross-impropriety standard.”

Copley also challenged jury instructions on “defense of habitation and first-degree murder by lying in wait.” “In his view, both instructions misstated the law and distorted his right to defend himself and his home,” Earls wrote.

“Mr. Copley first argues that the trial court erred by instructing jurors that the defense of habitation is unavailable to an aggressor,” Earls explained. “That argument is misguided on the facts and the law.”

Copley’s lawyer requested the language the defendant later challenged, Earls wrote. “Because Mr. Copley specifically and expressly asked for the ‘aggressor’ language he now attacks, any flaw was of his own device. We discern no reversible prejudice in the ‘jury instruction given in response to [Mr. Copley’s] own request,’ and decline to award relief for an error so patently invited by Mr. Copley himself.”

The court accepted Copley’s argument that part of the jury instructions conflicted with his defense under the castle doctrine.

The doctrine “allows the lawful occupant of a dwelling to defend it from a trespasser’s unlawful or forcible entry,” Earls explained. “When the statute controls and the State does not dislodge it, a defendant who uses deadly force to protect the home is excused ‘from criminal culpability.’ At trial, Mr. Copley invoked the statutory castle doctrine, and the trial court instructed on that defense.”

“But in Mr. Copley’s view, the court did not go far enough,” the court opinion continued. “In charging jurors on murder by lying in wait, the court suggested that jurors could convict Mr. Copley of that offense even if they deemed his actions covered by the castle doctrine. That instruction was error, Mr. Copley contends, as it distorted the law and allowed the jury to attach a ‘guilty’ verdict to justified defensive force.”

“We agree and hold that if an occupant inside his home uses lawful defensive force as permitted by section 14-51.2, the statutory castle doctrine vitiates essential elements of lying in wait and precludes criminal culpability for that offense. The instruction delivered in Mr. Copley’s case mistakenly suggested otherwise,” Earls wrote.

“[A]s Mr. Copley argues, a defendant duly shielded by section 14-15.2 cannot be convicted of first-degree murder by lying in wait because the statutory castle doctrine foreswears the crime’s essential elements,” she added.

“In short, defensive conduct embraced by the castle doctrine is not the sort of underhanded sneak attack typified by lying in wait,” Earls wrote. “When a defendant lawfully defends his home in line with section 14-51.2 and the State does not rebut the statutory presumption of reasonableness, his force is a justified defensive measure immune from criminal culpability. For that reason, section 14-51.2 cannot coexist in the same case with the common-law crime of murder by lying in wait.”

While agreeing with Copley on the incorrect jury instruction, the high court did not accept his request for a new trial. “[D]espite the error in the instruction for murder by lying in wait, Mr. Copley’s conviction stands for first-degree premeditated and deliberate murder. For that reason, he does not forecast prejudice warranting a new trial,” Earls wrote.

Justice Tamara Barringer added a concurring opinion to “’call out for clarity’ in the pattern jury instructions associated with the various self-defense provisions that are now in place.”

“Roughly one year ago, this Court was faced with issues of the interplay between the castle doctrine and N.C.G.S. § 14-51.4,” Barringer wrote, citing the law spelling out circumstances when a defendant cannot claim self-defense. “It appears that the state of the pattern jury instructions is still not improved as of today.”

“It is greatly concerning that our State’s pattern jury instructions continue to leave jurors confused on what they may or may not consider in self-defense and castle doctrine circumstances,” Barringer wrote. “Further development of a strong underpinning to our State’s castle doctrine jurisprudence requires clear jury instructions.”