The Detroit-area homeowner who shot in the head 19-year-old Renisha McBride faces murder charges this week, in the latest trial to test the role of expansive self-defense laws in racially charged deaths by gunfire.
McBride was shot dead in the early hours of November 2 outside 54-year-old Theodore Wafer’s Dearborn Heights, Michigan, home. McBride’s family and police believe McBride was in a car accident, and knocked on Wafer’s door for help after her cell phone died. But Wafer’s lawyer told the press he shot McBride in self-defense. In statements to the press, he called the shooting “justified” and “reasonable,” invoking language from Michigan’s “Shoot First” laws that allow immunity for some self-defense shootings.
In the weeks after her death, the shooting of McBride elicited protests around the country, and comparisons to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. McBride was black and Wafer is white. Prosecutors mulled whether to charge Wafer for several weeks. But in announcing she would charge Wafer with second-degree murder, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office determined that Wafer “did not act in lawful self-defense.”
Wafer’s lawyer Cheryl Carpenter argued in opening statements Wednesday morning that Wafer shot McBride out of fear. To bolster that argument with legal support, she will have two options under Michigan’s expanded self-defense laws that grew out of NRA lobbying. In addition to passing a “Stand Your Ground” law in 2006 that expands the sanctioned use of deadly force outside the home, Michigan also expanded the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” which allows deadly force to protect one’s dwelling, to include areas around the home such as a yard or porch.
In other states, this expanded Castle Doctrine has been used to justify shooting a burglar targeting a neighbor’s home, and the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old who walked onto a neighbor’s porch to escape a potential police bust of underaged drinking.
For Wafer to successfully invoke the “Castle Doctrine,” he would have to show that McBride was “in the process of breaking and entering a dwelling.” Prosecutors said there no evidence of forced entry. And the autopsy report shows McBride was not shot at close range.
Wafer could also use the state’s Stand Your Ground law to show that he reasonably believed force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
As in the prominent trials of two other men who were acquitted for shooting dead black teens — George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn — the role self-defense laws played in the verdict may not be entirely clear if the decision is left to the jury.
Testimony began Wednesday with tearful recollections from Renisha’s mother, Monica McBride, that she went out go to to the store and never came home. Her friend testified that McBride had been drinking and smoking pot earlier that night.