Paul Sancya/AP
Theodore P. Wafer, 54, of Dearborn Heights, appears at his arraignment in 20th District Court in Deaborn Heights, Mich., Friday. Wafer faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride.

Michigan shooting: Reasonable self-defense or second-degree murder?

Theodore Wafer, a white homeowner in suburban Detroit, faces second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of Renisha McBride, an unarmed young black woman who came to his door in the middle of the night.

In a case that is drawing comparisons to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin in a gated Florida community, a white homeowner in suburban Detroit was charged Friday with second-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed young black woman who came to his front door in the middle of the night two weeks ago.

The homeowner, Theodore Wafer of Dearborn Heights, Mich., was also charged with manslaughter and the possession of a firearm in the shooting death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride. Wayne County prosecutors allege Mr. Wafer shot Ms. McBride through the locked screen door of his home after 4 a.m. on Nov. 2.

If convicted Wafer, who was released on bond after his arraignment Friday afternoon, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Key to the case will be assessing how threatened Wafer felt when he came to his door, and whether those feelings were reasonable. Police say Wafer told them he thought someone was breaking into his house and that he accidentally fired his 12-gauge shotgun.

It is uncertain why McBride ended up on Wafer’s front porch; three hours earlier, she crashed her car into a parked vehicle about a mile from the house and walked off in a bloodied condition, according to police.

Prosecutors say Wafer violated Michigan law on self-defense that says the shooter “must honestly and reasonably believe that he is in imminent danger of either losing his life or suffering great bodily harm,” says Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

In talking to reporters Friday, Ms. Worthy said Wafer “did not act in lawful self-defense.”

Unless Wafer strikes a plea deal with prosecutors, the case likely will go to a jury that must decide if he acted in the manner of a reasonable person given the circumstances.

However, because police know so little about what happened that night — there are no witnesses and they only have Wafer’s statement to rely on — prosecutors face the challenge of convincing jurors there was no sign of a threat that night. This may be especially difficult because Wafer himself is proving to be a low threat: He immediately confessed to the killing, cooperated with police, and has no criminal record.

Likewise, defense attorneys also are burdened with proving that Wafer’s actions were reasonable especially since police say there was no physical struggle, McBride was not armed, and the screen door separating both people was locked.

“This is far from a slam dunk one way or another,” says Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and a former federal prosecutor. “But this becomes an immensely difficult case because prosecutors are going to have to ask the jury to infer from circumstantial evince that he didn’t feel threatened and, if he did feel threatened, it was not objectively reasonable to feel that way. All the defense has to do is poke one hole through that argument.”

Similarly, Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says that prosecutors will be burdened with having to disprove Wafer’s condition, which is entirely subjective.

“How do you evaluable a subjective reasonableness? You are either afraid or you are not,” he says.

What might work against the prosecutors is a toxicology report released Friday by the Wayne County Medical Examiner that shows McBride’s blood alcohol level was .218, or more than twice the legal limit, and that she also had traces of marijuana in her system.

“If you are trying to say that someone was acting erratically and acted in a way that might have enacted fear, that piece of evidence might support that,” Professor Henning says.

After the bond hearing Friday, Wafer’s attorney, Mack Carpenter, told the Detroit News that he expected an acquittal for his client “because of the time and [McBride’s] condition.”

Despite Worthy telling reporters that race was “not relevant” in her decision to bring charges legal experts say that it is inevitable that race will play a significant role in determining the nature of the shooting, and for jurors to assess sympathy one way or another.

Already, the case is being compared to the fatal shooting in Florida of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, the white/Hispanic volunteer neighborhood watchman who said he acted in self-defense. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted in July of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the case.

On Friday, Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), released a statement criticizing any notion that McBride’s alcohol level justified the shooting. “Intoxication or sobriety is no justification for reckless and irresponsible shooting and ultimately destroying a viable life,” Rev. Anthony said. 

If the case goes before a jury, race will present itself as a burden for both sides, Professor Benza says. The defense will need to convince jurors that Wafer did not act out of fear fueled by racism, and prosecutors will need to be persuasive in showing jurors that they are not exploiting the skin color divide.

“The reality of our world is we cannot deal with the issue of race. In all of these self-defense cases, race immediately comes into play. As soon as you have one person of one race and another person of another race, people are going to polarize them to say they involved a racist action,” he says.

What will be key, he says, is how sympathetic Wafer appears in court: “Does he come across as unreasonably afraid like a scared-y cat, or does he come across as a racist?” Benza asks. “That changes the entire dynamic.”

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