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DETROIT — Over and over, the judge badgered prospective jurors to come clean. Did they know more about this case than they admitted? Did they already have a strong opinion? At one point on Tuesday morning, Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway even asked them, one by one, whether they were aware that “this is real life, this is not television.”
Hathaway was trying to keep control over proceedings that will, inevitably, become a media spectacle one way or the other. The trial of 55-year-old Theodore Wafer in the shooting death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride, which begins with opening arguments on Wednesday, is likely to be this nation’s most racially divisive case of 2014. In many circles, it is billed as a sequel to the case of Trayvon Martin. Both involved unarmed black teens gunned down by white men who asserted they feared for their lives.
“This case becomes a barometer or indicator in terms of where we are in terms of race in the criminal justice system,” said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan. “Trayvon elevated our understanding of why and how there’s a double standard in terms of how these matters are resolved. The Renisha McBride case puts the focus back on that question: How well will a criminal justice system deal with violence perpetrated by a white male on a young black person?”
Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted last summer of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges — the same charges now faced by Wafer. Wafer shot McBride on his front porch in Dearborn Heights, a mostly white town bordering Detroit, in the early hours of Nov. 2, a few hours after she crashed her car into a parked vehicle a mile away.
McBride’s family said they believe she was approaching Wafer’s house for help. Wafer’s attorneys say the woman was aggressively banging on the door and that he believed she was there to burglarize his home. Among the key points of dispute, Wafer’s side asserts his door screen was dislodged by McBride in an example of her out-of-control rage. Prosecutors say it was pushed off the hinge when Wafer shot her through the screen.
Fraught racial backdrop
It took two days of questioning this week to seat 12 jurors and two alternates, a group that includes four black people. Each prospective juror was quizzed during the selection process not just on their prior knowledge of the widely publicized case but also about their views on the police, gun violence and race.
At one point on Tuesday, with potential jurors out of the courtroom, prosecutors complained that the defense was dismissing prospects to minimize the number of black jurors. The defense denied the claim, but the complaint reflects the fraught racial backdrop of the case.
One question frequently asked of prospective jurors — whether they believed men could feel threatened by women — exposes the less discussed subtext of the case, which is sexism, University of Michigan law professor Eve Primus said. The defense, with its query, was hoping to plant the notion in the jury’s mind that women can be as violent and aggressive as men.
Primus believes the diversity of the jury members — as well as their lifestyles — will be an important difference from the all-white jury in Sanford, Fla., that acquitted Zimmerman. Yet that could also cut both ways, she said.
“When you’re dealing with jury pools that contain large numbers of minorities and people who live in impoverished communities, their experience with and perception of the world is drastically different,” she said. “Black jurors who have experienced prejudice might say [Wafer] just shot her because she’s black. But, at the same time, if jurors live in communities where someone who approaches them and is yelling at them means violence, they might find it reasonable for him to think she presented a threat of violence.”
The defense, indeed, is expected to paint McBride as troubled, a teen with prior arrests and, at the time of her death, a blood alcohol content more than two times that allowed an adult driver in Michigan. Prosecutors argue that if Wafer felt threatened, he should have kept the door locked and called 911 rather than open it and shoot McBride.
‘Stand your ground’
The case hinges on what the jury views as reasonable self-defense, but civil rights advocates insist that Wafer may have believed he was allowed to shoot McBride based on laws seen as permitting gun violence in such situations. The Martin and McBride cases, taken along with the 2012 shooting death of a black 17-year-old at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station during an argument, are seen as reflecting a society that sanctions white-on-black violence in the face of any perceived threats.
Such laws are generically referred to as “stand your ground,” although neither Wafer nor Zimmerman actually used that defense in their cases.
“Even when ‘stand your ground’ defenses are not used, justification is used more broadly,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, a social-media activist organization. “There are a lot of folks all around the country watching what happens in Michigan, watching the ongoing impact of these laws and how they’re used or leveraged.”
Intriguingly, while a racial maelstrom brews on the sidelines of the McBride trial, court watchers do not expect race to be the focus — or even ever referenced — by either the prosecution or the defense in the courtroom itself. “To the defense, this is not a case about racism, so it won’t be an issue in the case,” Wafer's attorney Cheryl Carpenter said. “I know the media and a lot of the public thinks that, but when the evidence comes out, it will not be racially charged.”
Justice, not racism
McBride’s family, too, has tried to downplay the role of race in the tragedy. They did not participate in protests days after the shooting outside the Dearborn Heights Police Department, as supporters urged prosecutors to charge Wafer. He was charged about two weeks after the incident.
On Tuesday, McBride’s aunt Bernita Spinks reiterated that she wanted the case to be about justice, not racism. “I don’t think it should be about that,” she said. “I would never speak on that. I’m not the judge. God’s the judge. He knows everything.”
While the courtroom is expected to be packed with spectators, relatives and journalists, few expect the circus-like atmosphere of other high-profile trials. Activists are not planning to picket, and Wafer has not drawn the same vigorous support from vigilante or gun-rights groups as Zimmerman did.
Whether that calm persists, Fancher said, depends on how the trial proceeds and ends. “In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, people began to mobilize,” he said. “In this case, law enforcement and prosecutors all said the right things. People wait to decide whether to become active until after the final outcome. People are watching it. If things don’t go as they reasonably should based on whatever the proof is the jurors see, people might re-emerge and mobilize again.”