State v. Copley: Addressing Race During Closing Argument

Last month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals decided State v. Copley, __ N.C. App. __, 2019 WL 1996441 (May 7, 2019), in which a divided panel held that the trial court abused its discretion by overruling the defendant’s objections to the prosecutor’s remarks about race during closing argument. For that reason, the Court vacated the defendant’s first degree murder conviction. This post discusses the law governing when parties in a criminal trial may discuss issues of race, as well as emerging strategies for mitigating the effects of implicit racial bias on decision-makers.

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Who Goes Last?

In my previous post, I wrote about who goes first when presenting evidence at a suppression hearing or trial, and the circumstances under which the normal order of presentation could be changed. This post addresses the obvious follow-up question: who goes last?

In a routine (non-capital) jury trial, which side gets the all-important final word with the jury before they start deliberating?

The rule itself is simple and straightforward. If the defense offers any evidence, then the state gets the final argument (plus an opening address); if the defense does not offer any evidence, then the defense gets the final argument (plus an opening address). See G.S. 7A-97; N.C. Gen. R. Prac. Super. & Dist. Ct. 10.

That sounds pretty clear. But what exactly does it mean to say that the defense “offered evidence” at trial? That’s where things start to get a little more interesting.

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Evidence and Arguments about Prison Life in Capital Cases

During the second phase of a capital trial, the jury must decide whether to sentence the defendant to death or to life in prison. The jury’s perception of prison life may influence that decision. If the jury believes that prison life is comfortable, it may be more inclined to impose a death sentence, while if … Read more


Jury Argument — Part III

In a prior post on this topic, I began outlining some impermissible types of jury argument. In this post, I’ll continue that discussion with the following additional listing of improper argument: Religious Arguments. The N.C. Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned against jury arguments based on religion, see, e.g., State v. Barden, 356 N.C. 316 (2002), … Read more


Jury Argument — Part II

In a prior post on this topic, I addressed permissible jury argument. In this post and one that follows [editor’s note: coming next week], I address impermissible argument. The courts have identified several types of arguments that are improper. They include: Abusive Arguments. During a closing argument a lawyer may not become abusive. G.S. 15A-1230(a); … Read more


Jury Argument — Part I

Issues regarding the permissible scope of jury argument are becoming commonplace in N.C. criminal cases. In a series of posts, I’ll address some recurring issues that arise regarding the content of opening and closing arguments. In this first one, I’ll outline the scope of proper jury argument. Two posts that follow will deal with impermissible … Read more


Consider the following excerpts from a penalty phase closing argument in a capital case: “[D]on’t look to [the defendant] for sympathy, because he demands none. And, ladies and gentlemen, when you turn and look at [the defendant], don’t look for good deeds, because he has done none. Don’t look for good thoughts, because he has … Read more