A white suburban homeowner in the Detroit area was charged Friday with second-degree murder after shooting a young black woman in the face on the porch of his home, in the latest twist of a racially charged case that has made headlines across the country.
Theodore Wafer, 54, of Dearborn Heights, also faces a manslaughter charge in the death of Renisha McBride, who was killed in the early hours of Nov. 2 after she apparently knocked on his door. Family members believe the 19-year-old McBride was likely approaching Wafer’s home looking for help after being involved in a car accident nearby.
The case has triggered outrage from civil rights groups, which have called for a thorough investigation, alleging that race may have been a factor in the shooting. Prosecutors, however, have pushed back against the idea that McBride was killed because she was black.
"In this case, the charging decision has absolutely nothing to do with the race of the parties," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said at a news conference.
Evidence showed that McBride knocked on the locked screen door, Worthy said, and that there was no sign of forced entry.
“These are the appropriate charges, and he did not act in lawful self-defense," Worthy said.
The case follows a long line of shootings in the U.S. that have served to amplify racial divisions and to highlight controversial “stand your ground” gun laws. Michigan has such a law, allowing an individual to use deadly force against another person with no duty to retreat if the individual “honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault of himself or another individual.”
A stand-your-ground law was central to debate around the Florida case in which George Zimmerman, a white volunteer neighborhood watchman, shot unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. The McBride case also appears to have some similarities to a shooting in Charlotte, N.C., in which an unarmed black man knocked on the door of a home after a car accident and was fatally shot by a white police officer responding to a 911 call placed from the home. In that case, Officer Randall Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter less than 24 hours after the shooting of Jonathan Ferrell.
What is certain in Detroit is that McBride's death has caused anguish on all sides of a divided community. Last week, as bloodstains remained on the front steps of the modest brick house where she was killed, some residents complained they were now afraid of the turmoil that has gripped Dearborn, which is mostly white, and Detroit, which is primarily black.
Casey Salame, a member of Dearborn’s large Arab-American community, lives next door to where McBride died and doesn’t think his city is racist. The Lebanon native said most of the customers of his automotive repair business in Detroit are black.
When Salame moved his family to the tree-lined street near the Detroit border four years ago, he thought they would be safe.
Now, after the shooting on his neighbor’s porch, he is making plans to move.
“It’s a safe neighborhood, but I’m worried about retribution,” he said. “What if someone comes looking for (Wafer) with a gun? I’ve got my wife and kids to think about. I don’t want my family to get caught in a drive-by shooting.”
Salame said Wafer is a quiet and polite neighbor who takes good care of his house and yard. The bloodstained steps are flanked by neatly sculpted evergreen bushes. Ornamental grass and a Japanese maple are planted in front of a picture window with its blinds tightly shut. Wafer’s neatly kept yard is blanketed with maple leaves that otherwise would have been raked up promptly.
“I haven’t seen him since the shooting,” Salame said. “He hasn’t been out in the yard working like he would normally.”
The sheer numbers speak of the differences between the two neighboring cities. Detroit’s population is 82.7 percent black, and racial politics for decades has been a fact of life in the city. In Dearborn Heights, which has a population of 57,774, the demographics are almost flipped. According to the 2010 census, 86.1 percent of the suburban community’s residents are white and 7.9 percent are black.
Wafer’s attorney, Cheryl Carpenter of Bloomfield Hills, told Al Jazeera that her client was “a good guy, not the racist monster everyone thinks he is.” Carpenter said Wafer had thought his house was being broken into.
But the family and friends of McBride question whether she would have been shot if she had been a white woman, knocking on the door in the predominantly white neighborhood.
The shooting happened around 3:40 a.m. on Nov. 2. Detroit police report that McBride hit a parked car about 1 a.m. on Majestic Avenue at Bramell Street, about six blocks away in Detroit. It is still unclear what she did in the nearly three hours between the time of the accident and the time of the shooting, and why she passed by dozens of houses to knock on Wafer’s front door.
A toxicology report released Thursday showed she had alcohol and marijuana in her system. The report said her blood-alcohol level was about 0.22, more than twice the legal limit for driving.
“She had to pass a lot of houses before she ended up where she did,” Salame said. “I wished she had knocked on my door. I would have called the police and told her to wait outside. She’d still be alive.”
The Detroit chapter of the NAACP issued a statement on the incident, stating it must be investigated at every level.
“This death appears to be an overreaction to a young woman in need of help,” the statement said. “Was this a racial profiling? Was this shooting warranted when the evidence indicates that Ms. McBride had no weapon, created no disturbance, threatened no break-in, or demonstrated no disrespect to the household in question? Since when has knocking on the door for help due to car trouble provided the justification to commit a deadly offense?”
A rally held last Saturday at a church in Detroit attracted about 100 attendees. The Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church and president of the Michigan chapter of the civil rights group the National Action Network, compared the shooting to that of Martin in Florida.
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib was one of the speakers at the rally. She attended with her two young sons in tow.
She said afterward she was “devastated” over the shooting death of McBride, and it made her worry for the safety of the community her children are growing up in.
“The fact that you can’t knock on the door of a neighbor and ask for help without getting shot in the face — something is wrong,” said Tlaib, the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature, who represents Detroit on the border of Dearborn. “I feel a big sadness, and I’m also kind of enraged. It’s not getting easier for me to hear stories of black children getting shot.”