The Detroit-area homeowner who shot in the head 19-year-old Renisha McBride was found guilty of murder Thursday afternoon. The jury found him guilty on all three charges — second-degree murder, manslaughter, and felony firearm — on its second day of deliberations.
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 claimed during trial that he shot McBride in self-defense, after initially telling police he discharged the gun by accident.
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, governed by Michigan’s expansive “Shoot First” laws that authorize individuals to deploy deadly force in self-defense without a duty to retreat. 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.”
The jury verdict is likely to elicit a collective sigh of relief in the civil rights community, after acquittals in the trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn involving racially charged killings reinforced the perception that Stand Your Ground-like laws skew outcomes against African Americans.
During the trial, prosecutors probed Wafer’s inconsistent testimony on whether he intended to fire, and questioned why, if he was shooting in fear for his life, he put his gun down by the front door. They also called upon jurors in closing arguments to consider why he didn’t make a more vigorous effort to call the police before turning to his gun, rather than making himself “judge, jury, and executioner.” Even under Michigan self-defense law, Prosecutor Athina Siringas argued, the shooting “had to be immediately necessary and it wasn’t.”
Defense Argued ‘Alcohol Is What Caused All Of This’
Defense lawyer Cheryl Carpenter argued Wafer feared for his life when he shot McBride out his front door. But she sought to deflect from Wafer by placing the ultimate fault elsewhere: she said the shooting happened because McBride consumed alcohol earlier that night.
“I’m not blaming Renisha,” Carpenter told the jury during closing remarks Wednesday. “But alcohol is what caused all of this.”
She proceeded to paint two narratives of that night, contrasting McBride’s evening consuming alcohol with friends to Wafer’s quiet evening at home. As described by the Detroit Free Press’s Live Blog of the trial, the 19-year-old McBride was at a friend’s house at 8 p.m., drinking and smoking marijuana, while Wafer was at home eating a sandwich. When McBride left her home at around 11 p.m., Wafer had been asleep for several hours.
“This man told the truth,” Carpenter said, referencing Wafer.
Prosecutors did not dispute McBride’s intoxication. McBride’s friend did testify that they engaged in social drinking earlier that night, and her blood alcohol level was tested at .218 — three times the legal level. But testimony also corroborates that Wafer fired the deadly gunshots in response to nothing other than McBride’s knocking at the front door after an apparent car accident. He never spoke to her. He never heard her say a word. He says he didn’t even see what she looked like. Prosecutor Athina Siringas said McBride had “the misfortune to walk on Wafer’s porch.”
Wafer testified that he opened the front door and shot his gun reflexively after searching unsuccessfully for his cell phone. “There was no pointing,” he said, describing the position of the gun. “It was just a self-defense reaction to protect myself.”
While the facts of this case are different in many ways than those in the prominent “Shoot First” trial of George Zimmerman, the defense’s portrayal of the victim — in that case, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — is in many ways the same.
During the trial of Zimmerman, his defense lawyer similarly honed in on traces of marijuana in Martin’s blood, and sought to define him by his one school suspension, and images of him wearing gold-colored tooth caps. Both teens were unarmed at the time of their deaths.
Wafer said in his testimony that he shot the gun right after opening the door and did not get a good look at McBride. He said he could not detect her gender or race; and did not question her in any way before pulling the trigger. But whether or not Wafer was aware of McBride’s race when he shot her, the shooting has generated national attention because of the racial dynamic — McBride was a young black woman, shot by an older white man. The case also revived controversy over expansive “Shoot First” state laws that allow individuals to deploy their guns in self-defense without a duty to first attempt retreat. In this case, Wafer shot McBride seconds after opening the door, and called 911 after he shot her.
In his own lengthy testimony, Wafer conveyed immobilizing fear over who was outside his door that night. While he initially told police after the accident that he deployed his gun by accident, he conceded at trial that wasn’t the truth. He said he didn’t know why he lied at first, speculating that perhaps he was in “denial” about what he had done.
“I wasn’t gonna cower in my house,” he said.
He later added, “she had her whole life in front of her and I took that from her.”