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Was it murder or self-defense? Jurors will decide case of man who shot Renisha McBride

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Was it murder or self-defense?

That’s the question jurors will decide in the case of Theodore Wafer, whose trial on charges including second-degree murder is now underway in Detroit.

Wafer is the white, Dearborn Heights homeowner who shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride on his front porch last fall.

No one disputes that Wafer shot and killed McBride after she knocked on his front door around 4 am on November 2nd.

Around midnight, McBride had crashed her car a couple miles away in Detroit. Witnesses told police she stumbled away from the scene of the accident bloodied and disoriented.

We don’t know exactly what happened in the intervening hours, and it’s not clear how or why McBride ended up at Wafer’s front door. Her autopsy results did show high blood levels of both alcohol and marijuana.

Wafer claims he was startled awake by the pounding on his door. Confused and disoriented himself, he couldn’t find his cell phone to call police.

Fearing a break-in, Wafer grabbed his shotgun. Peering out into the dark, he was startled by McBride, and claims to have barely seen her before he pulled the trigger.

During opening statements yesterday, defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter told jurors that Wafer had already been unnerved by some recent crimes in the neighborhood.

Carpenter dramatically relayed Wafer’s version of events that night, saying McBride banged on the door so violently that it broke.

“It’s metal breaking. BREAKING. On his front door,” Carpenter said. “Ted is thinking, ‘They’re coming in! They’re breaking the house!’”

But prosecutors argue Wafer’s actions don’t meet the standard for self-defense, even under the state’s 2006 “castle doctrine” law, which gives people wide latitude to use lethal force if they fear “death or imminent bodily harm” in their home.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Danielle Hagaman-Clark said police found absolutely no evidence that McBride had tried to break in the home—and that Wafer’s screen door actually broke when he blasted McBride with his shotgun straight through it.

“The screen door that she was shot through was still locked when the police got there,” Clark said.

Many people have noted eerie similarities between McBride’s death and the Trayvon Martin case: two unarmed black teenagers shot and killed by white men claiming self-defense.

McBride’s case sparked protests and outrage last fall, especially since Wafer, like George Zimmerman, wasn’t immediately arrested and charged with a crime.

As the months passed, things have grown more subdued. Still, many Detroiters are keeping a close eye on the case.

As the trial carried on in a downtown Detroit courthouse, Otis Smart and Melissa Wright stood chatting on a street in nearby midtown. Neither found Wafer’s self-defense claim convincing.

Smart says Wafer could have just not answered the door, or found some other way to call for help. But instead, he chose to pick up a gun.

“A shotgun through the front door?” Smart said incredulously. “Any weapon through the front door…a bow and arrow. I mean, a lady banging on the door? Like if she was a big ol’ man, maybe. But no, I don’t buy that.”

“I don’t buy it at all,” Wright added. “That was murder. And that was wrong.”

Just down the street, Camille Chippewa wasn’t so sure. She agreed that the circumstances are strange—and with McBride dead, we only have Wafer’s side of the story.

“However, I think there hasn’t been enough reporting on the actual case itself,” Chippewa said. “I think, from what I’ve heard, it focuses more on the racial tension, rather than the actual facts of what happened when she was there. I want to hear more.”

Those facts will come out over the course of Wafer’s trial. But many people have already made up their minds about the case.

Either Theodore Wafer was a frightened homeowner who made a hasty, tragic but understandable mistake in the middle of the night.

Or he’s a killer who didn’t think twice before he shot a confused, defenseless girl to death in the dark.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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