The previously conjoined paths of two friends from Sylvania, Thomas Isreal Cooper and Brendyn Laroy Carter, parted Thursday afternoon when a Bulloch County Superior Court jury found Cooper guilty of the murder of Dexter L. Dunbar II and Carter not-guilty on all charges.
Both Cooper, now 22, and Carter, now 24, had spent more than two years in the Bulloch County Jail since Statesboro police arrested them soon after Dunbar died on Sept. 15, 2019, after Cooper shot him several times with a .40-caliber pistol. Now, Carter has been allowed to go home, while Cooper faces a life sentence, from which he could eventually be paroled, for a malice murder conviction, plus five additional years for possessing a firearm while committing a felony.
The shooting occurred shortly after 1:30 a.m. that Sunday in a parking lot at the Stadium Walk apartment complex on Lanier Drive, where a number of people gathered after fighting that broke out on the grounds of the nearby Cowboys nightclub had been dispersed by security personnel using pepper spray.
When Dunbar and some friends and relatives went to an apartment in the complex, Cooper brandished the pistol in the parking lot and told them not to leave until Carter arrived to confront Dunbar, two eyewitnesses testified. Witnesses also said that, after Carter arrived, he and Dunbar fought briefly, each throwing a couple of punches, before Cooper approached and shot Dunbar. Although neither defendant testified in court, Cooper himself, in a recorded interview with police that was shown to the jury, said that he shot Dunbar “about three” times.
But no testimony was heard from any witnesses that Carter knew that Cooper intended to shoot Dunbar.
After the jurors confirmed the verdict about 1 p.m. Thursday and were thanked for their service and left the courtroom, Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner spoke directly to Carter.
“Mr. Carter, the jury trying your case has found you not guilty,” Turner said. “You may be discharged.”
A woman seated in the audience area behind Carter gasped and sobbed. Interviewed later outside the courtroom, Carter’s mother, Shaunda Hunter, now a Statesboro resident, said she was “relieved” to hear the verdict and “overjoyed” that he was going home.
“I’m going to get him a good meal,” she said.
But Hunter also said, “I can never get that time back with my son,” of the more than two years he spent in jail. She had been able to visit him there in person before the COVID-19 pandemic but could only do a weekly video visitation during pandemic restrictions.
Life sentence, parole possible
After announcing Carter’s discharge, Turner conducted a brief sentencing hearing for Cooper but noted that the options were very limited with a malice murder conviction. Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit DA’s Office consulted briefly with members of Dunbar’s family outside the courtroom and then asked the judge for the maximum sentence, life without the possibility of parole for malice murder plus five years consecutive prison time.
“Having discussed this case with the family, having seen the senselessness of what happened and the fact that Thomas Cooper was … out to kill somebody that night, originally looking for the bouncer that pepper-sprayed him and then finding Dexter Dunbar, what we’re asking for in the case is life without the possibility of parole, followed by five years to serve in prison,” Jones said.
Cooper’s defense attorney, Sims Lanier, then requested the minimum sentence, life with the possibility of parole and five years on probation, instead of more prison time.
The sentence Turner imposed was a combination of those possibilities, life with the possibility of parole for malice murder plus five consecutive years, in prison and not on probation, for the firearm possession charge.
The jury had deliberated less than 90 minutes, including a brief return to the courtroom for Turner to repeat the legal instructions regarding one of the possible charges.
With the jury gone and before the judge announced the sentence, Cooper asked to speak to the court and was sworn in to do so.
“First of all, I’m going to start off, I want to apologize to the family,” he said.
Then Cooper said “some lies” had been told by a witness. But Turner told him he wasn’t allowed to retry the case.
“At the same time, I’ve never been in real trouble,” Cooper continued. “How can y’all make me out to be this person that I’m not? You know, I’m just trying to defend for my loved one.”
Lanier, who had introduced a letter into evidence that Cooper was admitted to a South Carolina hospital for a suicide attempt several years earlier, then told the judge that his client had “a clear psychiatric issue that has been in his past and continues to be with him.”
In his opening statement Monday, Lanier said that Cooper had himself been a victim of a shooting and had a close friend who was wounded in a drive-by shooting. Then when the fighting happened that night in 2019, “all those triggers bubbled up” and Cooper, believing that Dunbar was a violent person trying to harm him and his friends, overreacted, his attorney said.
In his closing argument Thursday morning, Lanier suggested that the conflict between Cooper and Dunbar started in the parking lot outside Cowboys, where police found blood in two places and took samples. But when questioned about an analysis that could determine whose blood this was, police had said the results still weren’t back from the crime lab, two years after the incident.
After the shooting that night, Cooper fled on foot and was seen bleeding on Robin Hood Trail. Met by law enforcement officers, he collapsed from blood loss before being transported to East Georgia Regional Medical Center. When police first visited him at the hospital, Cooper told them he had been stabbed “at the club.”
During Wednesday’s portion of the trial, Lanier had police photos of a knife found near the apartment complex introduced into evidence.
But Detective James Winskey of the Statesboro Police Department, who took photos for evidence that night and the next morning, testified Monday about a series of photos showing a blood trail from where someone climbed over a fence behind the apartment complex and was apparently cut by razor wire.
In his closing argument, Jones had a photo of the razor wire with a bent tip and blood stains shown again and called the idea of the stabbing “just a lie from Thomas Cooper.” Cooper had injuries to his feet as well as his arm, and none of the witnesses to the fight at Stadium Walk noted that he had been bleeding then, Jones observed.
He and Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black set out legal theory and argument that, while Cooper did the shooting, Carter had instigated the fight that led to Dunbar’s death and so was a party to the same crimes as Cooper.
But Carter’s attorney, Malone Hart, noted that no evidence had been presented of any conversation or plan between Carter and Cooper about a shooting. They had arrived on the scene at different times and departed different ways, he noted. Carter was stopped by police in a vehicle leaving the apartment complex. Hart referred the jurors back to the more than 45-minute recording of a police interview of Cooper they had heard Wednesday.
“Mr. Cooper said Mr. Carter didn’t know anything about this, and the investigators believed that to be true,” Hart said. “Why are we not supposed to think that’s true today, two years after the fact?”
Dexter Dunbar II, age 27, was also from Sylvania. Some court documents have his name as Dexter Dunbar Jr., but asked about this Wednesday outside the courtroom, his father, Dexter Dunbar Sr., said his late son’s named was Dexter Dunbar II. His mother, father, brother, fiancée, two sisters and a sister-in-law attended sessions of the trial.