COLUMBUS — The public may never know exactly what happened in that little downtown Columbus tavern on the morning of Feb. 16, defense attorney Steve Wallace said.
But a 12-person Lowndes County jury composed of eight men and four women found Daniel Paul Copple guilty Thursday of murdering Mark Caudill and James Bennett Mann II on that morning inside the Elbow Room Lounge. Jurors received the case about 11:45 a.m. Thursday morning and returned with the verdict about 1:30 that afternoon.
Copple, 44, of 31725 Kingly St. in Lucerne Valley, Calif., also was found guilty of aggravated assault when he pointed a gun at the head of Michael Ward, of Columbus, who was working as a bartender at the Elbow Room when the incident happened.
Caudill, 33, of Birmingham, Ala., and Mann, 42, of Columbus, were inside the bar when Copple entered just past midnight and a fight ensued between Caudill and Copple when Caudill pulled his gun. Caudill received two bullet wounds to the neck and head, and Mann received three wounds to the head, chest and right arm.
‘We can all move on’
Family members of both victims exchanged hugs outside the courtroom after the verdict was delivered and the sentencing took place. Copple was sentenced to life in prison for both murder counts and 15 years for the aggravated assault count, and the sentences in each count will run consecutively. The two life in prison sentences are mandatory under Mississippi state law for murder convictions.
“I don’t know what to say except there was justice. There was justice for a senseless murder,” said Helene Jordan, Mann’s sister.
“I really feel like with this we can all move on,” said Sonja Webb, Caudill’s fiancée.
Copple addressed the family members of the victims before sentencing and apologized to them “for whatever my part has been.”
“Please forgive me,” he said.
Another aggravated assault charge is pending for Copple. The charge stems from an incident that took place Feb. 15, a few hours before he entered the Elbow Room. Copple is charged with hitting a pedestrian, Carl Edward Allen of Columbus, with his white Ford F-150 near the intersection of Third Avenue North and Eighth Street North.
The jury and 16th Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens heard closing arguments from each side Thursday morning. District Attorney Forrest Allgood said Copple did not face any threat once he got control of the gun.
Wallace said Copple’s only intention when he walked into the Elbow Room was to get a beer.
“If you believe (Copple), ladies and gentlemen, then he was attacked the second he came into that bar,” Allgood said to the jury. “Once he gained possession of that firearm, he had the power … All threat evaporated.”
Al Comer testified Tuesday that he was about to break up a struggle between Caudill and Copple when he heard a gunshot and immediately left, went to Zachary’s and called the police. He never saw a gun while inside the bar, he said.
The prosecution also focused on Copple’s contradictions when he took the stand Wednesday. He said he was not on drugs but later acknowledged that someone could have slipped him a drug. Copple gave no testimony about where he was before going to the Elbow Room. Wednesday, he testified he did not remember much from the night of the incident.
“He has no justification for it; he has no explanation for it. All he told you is he got the gun away,” Allgood said.
Allgood argued Copple did not shoot the victims in self-defense; he shot them multiple times. Caudill was shot twice; Mann was shot three times.
“And why did he shoot someone three times? Why is that necessary?” Allgood asked. “If that’s not malice, if that’s not the intent to kill, ill will, then I don’t know what could be.”
Wallace said Copple did not go looking for a fight.
“Moments he’s inside the Elbow Room; a scuffle ensues,” he said.
Moments later there was a shot and then possibly more shots. But Copple did not have his finger on the trigger during the scuffle, Wallace said.
‘Finger on the trigger’
“Mr. Caudill had his finger on the trigger … If you have your finger on the trigger, you have the power,” Wallace said, noting he does not know who fired the weapon.
“There are two people dead and three families destroyed,” Wallace said. “Mr. Copple has a 2-year old grandson. His family couldn’t attend. (It is) probably a good thing.”
Wallace argued that all animals will either fly or fight when faced with danger.
“And our first instinct is to fly. But when we are threatened, when we are backed into a corner, we will fight any way we can,” Wallace said. Copple saw Caudill show the weapon and decided to fight, he said.
After that, no one knows what happened, Wallace said. “I don’t guess we’ll ever know.”
According to earlier testimony, Caudill had a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, which is three times the legal limit for driving. He also had traces of a prescription drug, Xanax, in his system. Allgood later argued that the combination of Xanax and alcohol made Caudill calm, not violent. Xanax is commonly used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
The incident that left two men dead was “another tragedy,” Wallace said; “let’s not make it two. … I don’t know what happened. Mr. Allgood doesn’t know what happened. No one actually knows what happened. That’s the problem with this is not knowing.”
“He was angry when he went into that bar,” Allgood said during rebuttal.
And once Copple got possession of the firearm, he was “lord of that tavern” — the decider between life and death, Allgood said. “He could have chosen life, but he shot anyway.”
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