Legal Wrangling Ahead in Michigan Porch Shooting Case

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DETROIT (AP) — 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.

SELF-DEFENSE

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.

RACE

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.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy didn’t appear to completely rule it out Friday.

“In this case, the charging decision has nothing whatever to do with the race of the parties,” she said. “Whether it becomes relevant later on in the case, I don’t know. I’m not clairvoyant.”

THE MISSING HOURS

McBride crashed her 2004 Ford Taurus into a parked car in Detroit, blocks away from Wafer’s home, around 1:30 a.m., according to the Dearborn Heights police report.

What isn’t known is how McBride spent the time between the crash and the shooting. Wafer called 911 at 4:42 a.m., but it’s not clear when he fired the fatal shot.

“We assume she was looking for help,” said Thurswell, who also put forward a theory from one of McBride’s two sisters, who said a drunken and disoriented McBride may have believed she was knocking on the door of her family’s home since both that residence and Wafer’s are corner lots.

Bretz said a potential defense argument is that McBride’s extreme drunkenness posed a threat.

“Was she acting crazy? If so … this gave (Wafer) a greater right to be afraid,” Bretz said.

The toxicology report also indicated McBride’s blood tested positive for the active ingredients in marijuana.

McBride’s family said it doesn’t matter, but Bretz said he could see the defense focusing attention on McBride’s behavior.

“It makes her out not to be an angel. She got drunk and stoned and drove and crashed her car. But that’s not a death-penalty offense,” he said.

WAFER AND MCBRIDE

McBride’s father, Walter Ray Simmons, referred to the defendant as “Mr. Wafer” when he talked to reporters Friday.

He then stopped: “I don’t even know why I’m saying ‘Mr. Wafer.’ This monster who killed my daughter.”

Earlier Friday, at his arraignment, Wafer stood in a Dearborn Heights courtroom and listened as Carpenter argued for a lesser bail amount.

Carpenter described Wafer as a steadily employed high school graduate who spent a year at Northern Michigan University and whose only run-ins with the law involved a couple of decades-old drunken driving cases. Wafer cares for his 81-year-old mother, Carpenter said.

Fellow defense lawyer Cheryl Carpenter said her client has been affected by the case.

“You could see it is weighing on him, and he realizes the extent of what happened that night,” she said outside of court.

“This is part of the problem with this case. There’s been so much prejudgment and so much speculation,” Cheryl Carpenter said. “Until we get all the facts out, and we don’t even have all of the facts yet.”

McBride’s parents are left to wonder what could have been.

Simmons said his daughter, a 2012 Southfield High School graduate who loved cheerleading and soccer, was going back to school and had dreams of becoming a nurse, or possibly pursuing a career in the automotive field.

“She deserves to be right here today with her family,” said McBride’s mother, Monica McBride, who wore a pin that read: “R.I.P. Nene.”

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