Ricardo Thomas/Detroit News/AP
Charles Hannah lights Theresa Walker's candle, (l.), at a candlelight vigil for Renisha McBride on Nov. 6, in the front of the home where she was shot in Dearborn Heights, Mich. No charges have been filed after authorities said McBride, of Detroit, was killed by a shotgun blast to the face Nov. 2.

Renisha McBride shooting: ways it is, and isn't, like Trayvon Martin case

Self-defense laws are again figuring into the shooting death of a young African-American. A Michigan homeowner who shot and killed Renisha McBride earlier this month has not been charged. Legal analysts say drawing comparisons between the two incidents is hard, at least so far.

Self-defense laws, and the specter that racial profiling is occurring during their application, are again making headlines as they did after the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting – this time surrounding the shooting death of a young black woman in Dearborn Heights, Mich.

On Monday, the death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride was ruled a homicide. She was fatally shot in the face on the porch of a homeowner in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights in the wee hours of Nov. 2, according to assistant medical examiner Kilak Kesha. There was no evidence that the shot was fired at close range, Dr. Kesha added.

As in the Trayvon Martin case, authorities have not immediately charged the shooter with a crime. As in the Trayvon Martin case, the deceased is a young African-American and the shooter is white (George Zimmerman is Hispanic/white). As in the Trayvon Martin case, the family wants criminal charges brought, but investigators are trying to determine if that is appropriate under Michigan law, which allows a person to use deadly force during a home invasion if he or she “has an honest and reasonable belief that imminent” death or bodily harm will occur.

But any further comparisons between the two cases are premature, say some legal experts. And many differences exist between the two shootings, they note.

For one, claims of Ms. McBride's family that she was shot in the back are not borne out by Monday's autopsy report. For another, the timeline of events is less clear than in the shooting of Trayvon in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012.

Florida prosecutors had a wealth of forensic evidence, including phone calls from both parties and physical wounds sustained by Mr. Zimmerman, notes Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and a former federal prosecutor. In the McBride case, there are no signs of a struggle, which will make it more difficult for police to determine the intent from either shooter or victim.  

“Here, it is all about perception. I feel bad for the police and prosecutors because they’re going to have to make a decision based on, at best, incomplete evidence. We’ll never know for sure what happened,” Mr. Henning says.

According to Gerald Thurswell, a lawyer representing the victim’s family, McBride crashed her car in Detroit Nov. 2 and received aid from passersby, who reported to police that she was bleeding from the face. But in the 40 minutes before police arrived, she wandered away from the accident scene. About three hours later, just before 4 a.m., she ended up standing on the porch of a Dearborn Heights home about a mile away.

A lawyer representing the homeowner told the Detroit News the shooting was justified because he felt threatened.

On Monday, Wayne County prosecutors said they are gathering information to determine if they will ultimately file charges against the homeowner, whose name authorities have not released.

McBride's family has suggested that racial profiling may have been a factor in Renisha's death. Mr. Thurswell told ABC News on Tuesday that her family is demanding a conviction of the shooter. Family members say McBride was not a threat but rather was seeking help after her mobile phone died.

“Whether it was racially motivated or it wasn't racially motivated, justice will only be served with this man’s conviction,” Thurswell said.

Michigan law may end up making that outcome difficult, even if it is not as protective of those who use deadly force in self-defense as Florida's so-called stand your ground statute. Whereas Florida law provides for immunity from criminal charges or lawsuits if prosecutors determine a person's actions to be justifiable, under Michigan's "castle doctrine" that determination falls to a jury.

In some ways, the autopsy report for McBride deepens the mystery and is not likely to play a large role in determining whether charges are ultimately filed. The medical examiner’s report suggests the amount of forensic evidence may be slim.

In such a case, Henning says, there are many variables at play that would determine if McBride created “a reasonable perception of a threat.” They are, he said, as wide-ranging as how she announced herself on the porch, her physical or mental condition, and the condition of the homeowner.

“Do you bring a criminal prosecution on that evidence? There’s just not a lot there,” he says.

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