Homeowner who killed an unarmed black man gets new trial after prosecutors raised issue of race

Conviction overturned in black man's death

A North Carolina appeals court says a white man serving a life sentence for killing an unarmed black man deserves new trial. Chad Copley was found guilty last year of murdering 22-year-old Kouren Rodney-Thomas in 2016 after reporting "hoodlums" in his neighborhood.

The decision to grant Copley a new trial was made by a three-judge panel in a split 2-to-1 ruling, reports CBS News' Mola Lenghi. The two justices in agreement say the decision came down to how the prosecution raised the issue of race in the trial.

In the ruling released Tuesday, two of three justices agreed the prosecutor in the case improperly injected race into his closing statement saying "the argument that (Copley) shot Thomas because he was black is not supported by any...evidence and is wholly gratuitous and inflammatory."

Copley called 911 shortly before the shooting in August 2016 and told the operator "we got a bunch of hoodlums out here racing. I am locked and loaded. I'm going outside to secure my neighborhood."

Copley fired his shotgun from inside his garage, killing Thomas. In that same 911 call Copley said, "They were showing a firearm. So I fired a warning shot and, uh, we got somebody that got hit."

"Sir, did they just show up at your house?" the operator asked Copley, who replied, "There's black males outside my freaking house with firearms. Please send PD."

Witnesses testified Thomas was unarmed. Copley claimed he feared for his family's safety.

Thomas's mother, Simone Butler-Thomas, says she has no doubt race was a major factor, despite the court's decision to throw out the case.

"Every day this man is with me because he took my son," Butler-Thomas said. "I just thought that it was over. That, you know, my son can finally rest in peace … I will never have closure. I will never have closure."

Lawyer Justin Bamberg represents Thomas's family. He said, "The jury did not convict Chad Copley because a prosecutor injected race into the case. They convicted Chad Copley because of how egregious his actions were."

An attorney for Copley agreed with the court's decision, calling it "thoughtful and well-reasoned."

Because one of the three panel judges on the appeals court dissented in the ruling, the state can appeal the decision. Prosecutors are reviewing whether to do that.