Chapter 3: The Trial

The trail for William Phipps’ 1995 death began in July of 1996. The accused shooter, James “Jimmy” Coley was facing capital murder charges. If found guilty, he might get the death penalty.

Keep this in mind: At NO time, did Jimmy Coley ever confess to or deny the shooting. That sets the stage because most of the jurors I spoke with said there was never any question in their mind that Coley did it.

There is a 2,000 page court file in Duplin County’s Court House. Unfortunately, there is no written transcript of the trail because he was found not guilty. There is also no evidence from the crime scene. The District Attorney’s office says that someone broke in years after the murder and stole the evidence. They say that sometimes people are hoping to swipe drugs and such…looks like that robber ended up with a box full of bullet casings and maps….

This is what I gathered from the paperwork: 1. Investigators seized a 7mm magnum live ammunition round and a yellow Chevrolet Cavalier. 2. At the crime scene, they found a 7mm fired bullet, a 7mm fired bullet jacket fragment and there was no microscopic agreement to show that the two were or were not fired from the same firearm. 3. They interviewed Coley’s friend who admitted that Coley had gone to his home later that night asking to switch the tires on their two Cavaliers. 4. Also on scene was the 7-foot ladder and nearby was where they said they found the bullet jackets.

The State prosecuted against Coley. The Phipps did not represent themselves in court. Lacy says that a law enforcement officer threatened him to stay away. He also said it was a conspiracy and that justice would not be brought during the trial…so why go?

Based on what was found at the crime scene, it was believed that Jimmy Coley climbed that ladder and sat and waited for the Phipps to drive by. Who knows how long? He shot 3 times into the back of the car and then went to change the tires so that his car wouldn’t be traced to the marks left in the sandy soil. Again, Coley never denied any of this. He just said that he was “in a bubble”…an amnesia of sorts where he couldn’t remember anything from that night.

The defense built their case with testimony from the community. There was a thick pile of subpoenas in the court file, all people who lived nearby. Jurors told me that each one told stories about how the Phipps’ had terrorized this community. They spoke about barns being burned down, dogs poisoned, driving down the middle of the road to scare people off, putting stakes in the fields, on and on….. The Phipps’ have always denied these accusations and have never been charged for any of them.

Still, those testimonies made a big impression on the jury. The ones I spoke with said they quickly decided that Jimmy Coley and his family (and perhaps, the entire community) was pushed to the brink after years of land feuding and acts of revenge.

In addition, Coley admitted to taking amphetamines to stay away for days, standing guard on his parent’s front porch. They reasoned that the stress plus the drugs had caused him to snap.

It wasn’t until after the jury was selected that the “temporary insanity” plea was brought up…9 months post-murder. The State argued it was an “11th hour defense” but their case quickly deteriorated as the jury heard more testimony from the community.

More about the jury: they were from Onslow County. Apparently, the Phipps’ and their land debacle was so well-known in Duplin, that they knew they would not be able to find an objective jury. They had to bus them in from Onslow every day.

The juror I spoke with said that at first, they were not unanimous, but eventually everyone agreed on “Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity.” I asked both reporter Ruthie Pope and the jurors what the reaction in the court room was. I mean…I would THINK there would be some surprise over an “Insanity” case….Nope. According to them, the only reaction was from William Phipps’ wife, who started crying. No one else seemed that surprised.

Of all felony cases, less than 1% raise an insanity defense…of THOSE…less than 25% succeed…

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