The trial of Brendyn Laroy Carter and Thomas Isreal Cooper, both facing murder charges in the Sept. 15, 2019, death of Dexter L. Dunbar Jr., got underway Monday in Bulloch County Superior Court with attorneys on both sides stating that Cooper fired the shots that killed Dunbar.
Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit DA’s Office asserted in his opening statement that Carter instigated a fight with Dunbar and that Cooper brandished a pistol to hold individuals in the parking lot at Stadium Walk Apartments until Carter arrived. A brief fistfight between Carter and Dunbar ensued before Cooper shot Dunbar with a Glock .40-caliber pistol, according to testimony from prosecution witnesses Monday.
But Carter’s defense attorney, Malone Hart, predicted that the jurors would hear no evidence that Carter knew a shooting was about to occur. Cooper’s attorney, Sims Lanier, suggested that his client did commit a crime, but voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.
“This case is two years old, and there’s a variety of reasons for why it took us so long to get to this point that I’m not going to go into, but without yourselves here deciding this case, we would not be able to reach a resolution this week,” Jones told the jurors.
Denied bond, Carter, now 24, and Cooper, now 22, both from Sylvania, have been held in the Bulloch County Jail from more than two years. Shortly after Dunbar, 27 and also from Sylvania, was killed in 2019, both defendants were charged with malice murder and Cooper with possessing a firearm in the commission of a felony.
But a replacement indictment prosecutors obtained from a grand jury last November accuses both Carter and Cooper of malice murder, murder in the commission of a felony, aggravated assault and the firearm violation.
The fight and gunshots at the Stadium Walk complex on Statesboro’s Lanier Drive that Saturday night followed previous fights in a crowd – by some reports numbering 100 or more people – that gathered outside the nearby Cowboys bar and pool hall. The bar’s security personnel reportedly released what Lanier called “mass pepper spray or tear gas” on the crowd, after which some of those affected fled to friends’ or relatives’ apartments to wash the irritant substance off.
Dunbar’s sister, Ashley Hunter, testified that she and Dunbar and some friends went to Hunter’s wife’s apartment at Stadium Walk. Meanwhile, Carter and Cooper had gone to another Stadium Walk apartment, where Cooper’s sister lived, according to Jones.
It was inside that apartment that Cooper grabbed the pistol he took outside and told Dunbar, Hunter and their friends they would have to wait for Carter to arrive, Jones said. When Carter got there, he and Dunbar exchanged three or four punches and tussled in a fight lasting about two minutes, testified Cameron Abraham, another man from Sylvania who was present.
Then Cooper approached from the side and fired the gun multiple times at Dunbar, according to witnesses.
“In this case, Thomas Cooper is the gunman,” Jones said in his opening statement. “Brendyn Carter instigates the fight which leads to Dexter’s death, it leads to his murder. Without Carter there is no escalation of this already volatile situation, and without Thomas Cooper there is no gunman.”
That Cooper was the gunman was not denied by either of the defense attorneys in their opening statements. But they had different takes on what it means for their clients, Cooper and Carter, who sat side by side, neatly dressed in button-up shirts, flanked by their lawyers at the defense table.
“The big thing, the primary crux of this case is that the state will not present you any evidence that Brendyn Carter knew that a shooting was about to happen,” Hart told the jury. “They’re charging him as a party to these felonies, but there won’t be any evidence presented that Brendyn Carter knew that a shooting was about to happen. He knew he was getting in a fight.”
Lanier said his client, Cooper, had some “underlying psychiatric problems,” had been a victim of a shooting himself and had a close friend who was a victim of a drive-by shooting. Then when the fighting happened, “all those triggers bubbled up” and Cooper, believing Dunbar was a violent person trying to harm him and his friends, overreacted, his attorney said. He noted that Dunbar had recently been released from prison.
‘Not a whodunit’
“It’s not going to be a whodunit,” Lanier told the jury. “There’s no question that Thomas Cooper shot Dexter Dunbar and that he died. The question is going to be, was there something that went on that night, ugly words, fights, fears that were engendered in his mind about things that happened in the past that are sufficient to provoke him in a way that isn’t legal but isn’t murder.”
He said that would involve voluntary manslaughter, “a very serious crime, but … not murder.”
After the shooting, Cooper fled the scene of foot and was seen bleeding on Robin Hood Trail by a passing driver and transported to East Georgia Regional Medical Center. Lanier suggested that he had been stabbed while fighting at Cowboys. But Detective James Winskey of the Statesboro Police Department, who took photos for evidence that night and the next morning, testified about several showing a blood trail from where someone climbed over a fence behind the apartment complex and was apparently cut by razor wire.
Footage from several law enforcement officers’ body-worn cameras played a big role in the first day of the trial, which was allotted up to four days on the court calendar but which attorneys said was unlikely to last that long.
The second prosecution exhibit Monday was footage from SPD Officer Eric McGlamery’s body camera as he performed CPR on Dunbar, who lay face-up, motionless except for the chest compressions, in an empty space between vehicles in the apartment complex’s parking lot. A woman could be heard on the audio saying things such as, “Come on, Dexter, get up! Be breathing!”
Two women from the pew occupied by Dunbar’s family members left the courtroom sobbing as this appeared on the screen for the jury.
Senior Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, who retired from full-time service in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit in 2016 but continues to assist the courts in specific assignments, is presiding. The case was previously assigned to Judge Michael T. Muldrew, who oversaw jury selection in September.
Turner recessed court by 3:45 p.m. Monday so that jurors could stay clear of traffic surrounding the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair Parade and opening of the fair. The trial was set to resume 9 a.m. Tuesday.