A familiar protest sign in Detroit. Photo courtesy via Justice for Renisha McBride
We still don't know how or why 19-year-old Renisha McBride wound up on Theodore Wafer's suburban front porch on November 2, 2013. But the rest of the events of that night aren't in dispute: At around 1 AM, McBride, a black woman from Detroit, crashed her car half a mile down the road from Wafer's home in Dearborn Heights. Hours later, at 4:30 AM, she was banging on Wafer's door. The 55-year-old airport maintenance worker responded by grabbing his shotgun and firing through the screen door, shooting McBride in the face and killing her.
"I would call it the worse mistake of your life, but I don't know if you can use the word mistake to describe a murder," Wayne County Judge Dana Hathaway told Wafer last week, moments before sentencing him to at least 17 years in prison for McBride's death.
The choice of words was significant: Throughout the trial, and even at last week's sentencing hearing, Wafer's defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter tried to convince the court that he had acted not out of malice but out of self-defense, making the crime more akin to manslaughter than murder. "He has never been so afraid in his life. He was in an extreme emotional state," Carpenter told the court Wednesday. "It is Mr. Wafer's state of mind that you need to look at."
Ultimately, that distinction—between manslaughter, which lacks malice, and second-degree murder, which is unpremeditated but intentional—became the centerpiece of the trial. Jurors were asked to consider whether Wafer "honestly and reasonably" believed that McBride presented an imminent threat to his life; in other words, whether his fear of a 19-year-old black woman pounding down his door was a credible reason for shooting that woman in the face.
The case draws obvious parallels to the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old whose killer, George Zimmerman, claimed to have acted out of fear and self-defense. On the stand, Wafer described McBride's banging on his door as "unbelievable," testifying that, terrified and groggy, he had reached for his loaded shotgun. Crime was rising in his neighborhood, Wafer said, and he had loaded his shotgun because he didn't want to "cower" in his own home. Using evidence from an autopsy that showed McBride had been drunk at the time of her death, Wafer's defense implied that she had been belligerent enough to incite fear.
But while Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, thanks to Florida's Stand Your Ground law, the court was not swayed in the McBride trial. Last month, the jury decided that the shooting was intentional, and that Wafer's fear, though probably real, was unreasonable. He was convicted on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter, as well as a related felony weapons charge.
At Wednesday's sentencing, Carpenter made a tearful plea for leniency, reminding the judge that the crime was not premeditated and arguing that 17 years in prison would amount to a life-sentence for Wafer, whose health is failing. Wafer also asked the court for mercy, and offered a brief apology to the McBride family. "Parents, family, friends of Renisha McBride, I apologize from the bottom of my heart," he said, his voice shaking. "I'm very sorry for your loss. I can only hope and pray that somehow you can forgive me. My family and friends also grieve from my fear that caused the loss of a life that was too young to leave this world. For that I'll carry guilt and sorrow forever. And I ask the court and your honor for mercy."
In the end, though, the judge was unrelenting, sentencing Wafer to 15 to 30 years for second-degree murder, a concurrent 7 to 15 years for manslaughter, and 2 years for felony with a firearm. "Although the evidence clearly showed that Miss McBride made some terrible choices that night, none of them justified taking her life," Hathaway said. "I do not believe that you're a cold-blooded murderer or that this case had anything to do with race or that you're some sort of monster. I do believe that you acted out of some fear but mainly anger and panic. An unjustified fear is never an excuse for taking someone's life. So what do we have? One life gone and one life ruined."
The statement succinctly sums up the tragic, and presumably obvious, lesson of McBride's death: People can't just shoot guns whenever they feel scared. More so than race, the case raises profound questions about gun control, gun ownership, and our increasingly loose definition of "self-defense." Would Wafer have gone out and murdered someone in cold blood? Probably not. But when faced with a supposed threat, he went first for the gun rather than follow any of the appropriate channels of law and order designed to keep us all from killing one another.
While Wafer's attorney has announced the 55-year old plans to appeal the case, for the moment the McBride family is satisfied with the court's ruling. "I thank God the judicial system worked," McBride's older sister Jasmine said in her tearful public comment.