Thomas was leaving a late-night party two doors down from Copley’s home in Raleigh when Copley called 911 and told a dispatcher there were “hoodlums” causing a ruckus and flashing guns at him. He said he was with a neighborhood watch group and that he was “locked and loaded.” Moments later, from inside his darkened garage, he fired on Thomas with a 12-gauge shotgun, killing him. Police found no other weapons at the scene.
Copley, dressed in a beige suit with his hair slicked against his head, stood silently with his two attorneys as the judge read the jury’s verdict, which said the defendant had been “lying in wait” for Thomas when he killed him, according to courtroom video.
Relatives of Thomas, sitting in the front bench, cried at the judge’s pronouncement.
“He wasn’t a hoodlum; he wasn’t a bad kid. He was a good kid,” his mother, Helen Simone Butler-Thomas, told the News and Observer after the verdict. “Maybe he can rest now, knowing his name was cleared and he didn’t deserve to die on a curb.”
Defense attorneys criticized the investigation by police and prosecutors, saying there was a “breakdown in the search for truth,” according to WNCN. Copley fired in self-defense, they said.
Copley faces life in prison.
The case drew national attention when Copley was charged at a time of heightened racial tension in the country. Several high-profile police shootings of young black men consumed national debate that summer, as did the deadly sniper attack on police officers in July 2016 during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas.
But supporters of the Thomas family saw a particularly strong parallel in Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder in the death of the teenager, who he said looked suspicious, but was acquitted in 2013.
An attorney for Thomas’s family called Copley “George Zimmerman 2.0.”
The night he killed Thomas, Copley called 911 around 1 a.m. and told police to come quickly. He said there were people revving their car engines and threatening him, as The Washington Post has reported.
“I’m on neighborhood watch. I am going to have the neighborhood meet these hoodlums out here racing up and down the street,” he told the dispatcher. “There’s some devil in them. They have firearms, and we’re going to secure our neighborhood.” At one point during the call he could be heard saying, “I’m going to kill them.”
He grabbed his shotgun and took a post in his garage. Minutes later, he called 911 again, saying he “fired a warning shot, and we got somebody that got hit.”
“There’s freaking black males outside my freaking house with firearms. Please, send PD,” he said.
A friend of Thomas, David Walker, said the two of them had gone to a house party but decided to leave because “it was basically boring,” as the Associated Press reported. He said Thomas, a food service worker, usually liked to stay in and play video games and was known for looking after his friends, telling them to put on their seat belts in the car. He testified that Thomas was jogging to his car when Copley opened fire from inside the garage, according to the Associated Press.
Copley admitted firing the fatal shot, saying he was trying to protect his wife and son. His son, who had experienced drug problems, had briefly run away a few days earlier.
Copley claimed in court this week, for the first time since he was charged, that he opened fire after Thomas “reached for his gun,” an assertion unsupported by any forensic evidence or other testimony.
But on cross-examination, Copley conceded that he had lied to 911 dispatchers and misled police about the scene, as WRAL reported. No one was racing cars, and he acknowledged that he had never before alleged that the victim reached for a gun. There was also no neighborhood watch in his community.
Copley offered a tearful apology from the witness stand after hearing Thomas’s supporters describe him as a caring friend, according to WRAL.
“I should have listened to my wife,” Copley said. “She told me not to go out there, not to make a big deal of it.”