Renisha McBride shooter gets 17 years in case that tested self-defense claim

Theodore Wafer, who shot Renisha McBride through his screen door, was sentenced to 17 to 32 years in prison. At trial, he said he feared a break-in and 'didn't want to be a victim.'

Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News/AP
Theodore Wafer, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., testifies in his own defense during his trial for the Nov. 2, 2013, killing of Renisha McBride in Detroit.

The Detroit-area man who shot and killed a 19-year-old African-American woman when she knocked on his door late at night was sentenced Wednesday to 17 to 32 years in prison.

Theodore Wafer was convicted last month of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride through his screen door, despite his claims of self-defense. The case had angered many in Detroit, especially those who saw racial overtones in the shooting (Mr. Wafer is white).

And it echoed several other recent cases in which shooters seem to have pushed self-defense laws past their intentions, raising questions about the effects of expanding some of those laws and the emphasis on self-defense as a reason for people to arm themselves.

“In some sense, the constant claim that people need guns for self-defense encourages people to define themselves as being in that situation,” says Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s law school and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “When you walk around thinking that people are constantly going to be attacking you, you’re more likely to overreact.”

In the Detroit case, Wafer was asleep on his recliner last November when he heard what he described as a loud pounding on his door at 4:40 am. He said he feared someone was trying to break in, and couldn’t find his cell phone. He grabbed his gun and shot Ms. McBride in the face through the screen door. “I didn’t want to be a victim,” he said at the trial.

McBride had crashed her car six blocks away several hours earlier, and had apparently been wandering the neighborhood, disoriented and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. It’s unclear what led her to Wafer’s door, but prosecutors speculated that she was seeking help.

In handing down the sentence Wednesday, Judge Dana Hathaway went with the recommended guidelines for the crime – two years for a gun crime in addition to 15 to 30 years for second-degree murder – ignoring the defense request that Wafer get as little as six years in prison, in light of his age (he is 55).

“I will carry that guilt and sorrow forever," Wafer said in an apology he read before his sentencing.

Judge Hathaway, meanwhile, said she didn’t believe the case had to do with race or that Wafer was “some sort of monster.” But she also made clear that she did not believe Wafer’s actions were justified.

"I do believe that you acted out of some fear but mainly anger and panic," Hathaway said. "An unjustified fear is never an excuse for taking someone's life.... So what do we have? One life gone and one life ruined."

Two other high-profile cases this summer have raised questions about the limits of self-defense in shooting someone. In a Minnesota case, a man was convicted this spring of murdering a teenage boy and girl who broke into his home, after laying what was essentially a trap for the two (who were suspected of having broken in before). And a Montana man is currently facing homicide charges after he killed a German exchange student who had entered his garage.

Last summer in Florida, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin – a case that brought to the forefront both racial profiling and the spread of "stand your ground" laws. But Michael Dunn was found guilty earlier this year of attempted murder after he fired into an SUV with black teenagers, killing one of them. Mr. Dunn, who is white, claimed self-defense, but there was no evidence the teenagers had a gun. Dunn faces a retrial this month to determine whether he’s guilty of murder.

At the trial in the Renisha McBride case, race barely came into play, and Wafer testified that he fired without looking, and had no clue as to the gender or race of his victim. But the racial dynamics were very apparent for residents of the mostly black city, and have been pivotal in some other recent shootings in which self-defense was argued.

“Race factors into our deepest prejudices about who is a threat and who is not,” says Professor Winkler.

Winkler notes that while some people fear that an expansion of concealed carry will lead to more such cases, in which a person with a gun feels entitled to react to any perceived threat by shooting, “the data doesn’t back that up.”

Despite an increase in concealed carry rights and permits, crime rates have generally declined, Winkler says, and the streets haven’t become the Wild West some have feared.

“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t individual cases where someone is conditioned to think they need to protect themselves with deadly force,” he says.

And figuring out where the legal limits on self-defense lie will always be contentious, he adds.

“We’re always going to debate where that line is between legitimate self-defense and overly aggressive self-defense.”

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