Legal wrangling ahead in Mich. porch shooting case
DETROIT – The way Renisha Marie McBride’s young life ended Nov. 2 is not in dispute: A homeowner in suburban Detroit fatally shot the 19-year-old in the face as she stood on his porch before the sun came up.
Almost every other aspect of the case is not as clear-cut.
Did race play a role in the shooting? What exactly happened on that doorstep? Did the homeowner reasonably believe he was acting in self-defense?
Police and prosecutors say Theodore Paul Wafer fired once with a 12-gauge shotgun through his screen door at McBride.
The 54-year-old airport maintenance employee, who faces murder and manslaughter charges, is free on bail awaiting a Dec. 18 hearing that will determine if the case should go to trial.
Ron Bretz, a Cooley Law School professor and former criminal defense attorney, says the case may boil down to a single word.
“It’s got to be reasonable,” he said. “The question is: What would a reasonable person do in these circumstances?”
That may be the key question in determining Wafer’s guilt or innocence, but much else is left unknown about a case that features legal and societal implications.
Under a 2006 Michigan self-defense law, a homeowner has the right to use force during a break-in. Otherwise, a person must show that his or her life was in danger.
Defense lawyers are expected to argue that Wafer feared for his life when a drunken McBride – toxicology reports put her blood-alcohol content at well above the legal limit for driving – came to his door in the middle of the night hours after crashing her car blocks away in Detroit. Those factors contribute to Wafer’s “very strong defense,” said his lawyer, Mack Carpenter.
Prosecutors and McBride’s family, meanwhile, see no justification for the slaying of the recent high school graduate. She was unarmed, they note. Plus, the screen door Wafer fired through was locked.
“Where’s his reasonable belief that his life was in jeopardy or that he was in jeopardy of great bodily harm?” said lawyer Gerald Thurswell, who represents McBride’s family.
It all comes down to what a jury thinks, Bretz said.
“You’ve got a gun. There’s an unarmed young woman on your front porch,” he said. “Is it reasonable to think that she’s a threat to you? That’s going to be a toughie.
“Is it fair to feel scared when a stranger is pounding on your door at 4 or 5 in the morning? Hell, yeah. … Don’t answer the door,” Bretz said.
The shooting has drawn attention from civil rights groups who called for an investigation and believe race was a factor – McBride was black; Wafer is white.
Some drew comparisons with the case of Trayvon Martin, the black teen fatally shot last year in Florida. In that case, Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder.
Bretz said both sides would be wise to stick to a “race-neutral” strategy. “Don’t go there. Keep it on the facts,” he said.
“Who wants to bring race into it? Everybody else. … The defense doesn’t want that. And the prosecution doesn’t want to bring it in. I don’t think they need to.”