DETROIT (AP) — Roused from sleep by the sound of pounding in the wee hours, a suburban Detroit man grabbed his shotgun, opened the front door and blasted a young woman in the face.
Is Theodore Wafer guilty of murder? Or did the 55-year-old use deadly force based on a reasonable fear that he was at risk?
Jury selection started Monday in a trial that will put Wafer’s self-defense claim to a tough test. The 19-year-old victim, Renisha McBride, was drunk but unarmed when she climbed the steps of his Dearborn Heights porch, 3½ hours after crashing her car a few blocks away.
Wafer, an airport employee who lives alone, is charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and use of a gun during a crime. If convicted of the murder charge, he could face up to life in prison, although the actual term would likely be shorter.
Civil rights activists immediately seized on race after the November shooting — Wafer is white and McBride was black — and some likened it to the 2012 killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. But race hasn’t been an issue in court in the months leading to trial.
“If Ms. McBride had stayed at the scene of her car crash, where help was on the way, Mr. Wafer would never have been put in the situation … to use deadly force to protect himself,” defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said.
She said prosecutors have wrongly portrayed McBride as “docile and meek.”
“In fact she was aggressive. She was violent. She broke part of Mr. Wafer’s house,” said Carpenter, who believes McBride broke Wafer’s screen door before the shooting, based on a defense expert’s opinion.
Prosecutors, however, said Wafer had a better choice if he was afraid: Stay behind his locked doors and call 911.
“Someone who claims lawful self-defense must have an honest and reasonable — not honest or reasonable — belief of imminent death or imminent great bodily harm,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said when she filed charges.
The first day of jury selection stretched into the afternoon as the judge asked people their views on guns, race and self-defense.
McBride’s death capped a night of strange events in Detroit and Dearborn Heights, a suburb that partially borders the city. Around 1 a.m., McBride crashed into a parked car on a Detroit street about half a mile from Wafer’s home in Dearborn Heights. Witnesses said her head was bleeding, likely from hitting the windshield, which was damaged. An ambulance was called, but McBride walked away before it arrived.
It’s not clear what happened to McBride from that time until she arrived at Wafer’s home around 4:30 a.m. They didn’t know each other, and Carpenter said no words were exchanged before the shooting. Prosecutors said she likely saw the glow from Wafer’s television, which was still on, and probably decided to seek help.
An autopsy found McBride’s blood-alcohol level was about 0.22, which is nearly three times above Michigan’s legal limit for driving.
“His testimony is essential. Without it, I don’t think they have much of a case” for self-defense, said Ronald Bretz, a professor at Cooley Law School and former defense lawyer. “If Mr. Wafer does a good, dramatic job of relaying his fear, he has a chance.”
Bretz said the composition of the jury will be important, especially the number of jurors from suburban Detroit.
“Many of the white people in Dearborn Heights feel they are on the edge of the battle line,” he said, referring to high-crime Detroit.
Carpenter wanted jurors to see a map, based on police data, of about 80 police calls related to shots being fired within a 1-mile radius of Wafer’s home in previous months. Judge Dana Hathaway said no, but some testimony about crime in the neighborhood is likely.
Hathaway also barred the defense from using selfies from McBride’s cellphone showing her with alcohol, money, marijuana and what appears to be a gun.
McBride’s aunt, Bernita Spinks, has attended pre-trial hearings, often rocking or shaking her head during disputes about evidence.
“I’m not worrying about anything. God’s got this case,” Spinks said.
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