RALEIGH, N.C. — A white North Carolina man convicted of fatally shooting a black neighbor will get a new trial because the jury wasn't properly instructed about his right to defend his home, an appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the jury should have received standard instructions about the state's "castle doctrine" law before it found Donald Kuhns, who's now 59, guilty of voluntary manslaughter in 2016.
Kuhns and his neighbor, Johnny Dockery, had a drunken argument in 2014 before the shooting outside Kuhns' Alexander County mobile home, according to court documents. Prosecutors concede Dockery was in Kuhns' yard when he was shot.
The trial court judge declined to instruct jurors on the state's home defense law, finding that the law didn't apply because Dockery wasn't trying to break into Kuhns' house.
But the appeals court said that interpretation of state law was too narrow. It found jurors should have been informed of Kuhns' right to defend against illegal entry to his property surrounding his home, not just the structure itself.
The appeals judges wrote that "it is undisputed that Dockery was within the curtilage of defendant's property — and therefore, within his home ... when defendant utilized defensive force against him."
Kuhns, who was initially charged with first-degree murder, was convicted by the jury of the lesser included charge and sentenced to at least six years in prison.
Kuhns and Dockery lived near each other in the Hiddenite community in Alexander County in western North Carolina. They were close enough friends that Dockery sometimes called Kuhns "Dad," according to court documents.
But on Oct. 2, 2014, Kuhns verbally intervened in an argument between Dockery and his girlfriend. Kuhns had been drinking from a 12-pack of beer and Dockery was intoxicated and holding a jar of liquor, according to court documents.
Anger between the two men escalated, and Kuhns later called the sheriff's office to say that Dockery was in his yard and threatening him. "He's been drinking white liquor and . . . he's a friend of mine, but today he's not a friend," Kuhns told authorities, according to court documents. Law enforcement officers told Dockery to leave.
About an hour later, around 10 p.m., the argument was again escalating outside Kuhns' home. A neighbor testified that Kuhns was taunting Dockery and using racial slurs against him minutes before the shooting, but that it was common for the two to trade insults even if they weren't mad.
Kuhns claimed he was inside trying to sleep when his friend came to his yard, yelled for him to come outside and threatened to kill him, court documents state. Kuhns told authorities that he came outside with a pistol and that Dockery charged at him.
Kuhns fired one shot into Dockery's head, killing him, according to court documents.
"Dockery was drunk, and had been loudly threatening Mr. Kuhns and others throughout the evening," defense attorneys wrote in a legal filing. A defense attorney didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.
The appeals judges noted that Kuhns was standing on his porch, while Dockery was threatening him from the ground nearby, within his yard. They wrote that "Dockery continued to return to defendant's property while repeatedly threatening him with bodily harm."