Regina H. Boone / AP

Man accused of shooting Renisha McBride feared for his life, jury is told

Theodore Wafer thought his house was under attack, his lawyer says

DETROIT — Her voice quavering to convey anguish thus far unseen on her client’s impassive face, defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter on Wednesday appealed to a Detroit jury to “understand how Ted felt” before he shot an unarmed black teen on his porch last fall.

“He was acting and reacting to escalating fear,” Carpenter said in her opening statement about Theodore Wafer, 55, on trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Renisha McBride.

“He had never been so scared in his entire life. It’s horrible and it’s sad that a 19-year-old woman is dead. But Ted is justified in what he did.”

Whether it was reasonable for Wafer to think his house was under attack is the key question the jury must weigh as this galvanizing, racially charged trial proceeds in Detroit. Wafer is white and lives in the mostly white Detroit border city of Dearborn Heights. He killed McBride in the early hours of Nov. 2, when, he says, she was banging on his door.

To the prosecution, this is a straightforward case of a trigger-happy homeowner who opened the front door and shot McBride rather than, if he was truly afraid, calling 911. He called 911 after the shooting occurred.

“There was no sign of any attempted burglary, there’s no evidence of any effort to breaking in,” said prosecutor Danielle Hagaman-Clark in her opening remarks. “His actions that night are unnecessary, unjustified and unreasonable. Because of that, a 19-year-old girl is dead on a porch in Dearborn Heights.”

The defense

McBride, whose autopsy found she had a blood alcohol content more than two times the legal limit for an adult driver, had crashed her car into a parked vehicle a few hours before she approached Wafer’s house about a mile away. 

Both sides say it is a mystery where McBride was and what she did in those intervening hours after she wandered away from the accident scene bleeding from her head and appearing “scared, confused and disoriented,” as Hagaman-Clark put it.

A photo of Renisha McBride on the cover of a program for her funeral.
Joshua Lott / Reuters / Landov

Carpenter’s 45-minute opening statement was the first real insight the public has had into the perspective of the reclusive Wafer, who lived alone for 20 years in the house he bought from his grandparents. She theatrically re-enacted the sound that Wafer said he heard when McBride pounded on his door. 

“Boom, boom, boom, boom,” she bellowed several times, representing the multiple times that Wafer said McBride banged on his front and side doors.

Carpenter said Wafer was fast asleep in a recliner in his living room when, at around 4:20 a.m., someone banged on his door. Fearful, he lay on the floor and groped for his cellphone but could not find it. 

Over the subsequent minutes he panicked, believing his home was under siege by possibly more than one attacker and asserting he heard metal in the front door frame “breaking.”

“They’re coming to get me,” Carpenter said, narrating Wafer’s thoughts in the moment. “It’s metal breaking. Breaking! On his front door. Ted hears it. Ted is thinking they’re coming in. They’re breaking [into] my house. Why? He doesn’t have a clue. He just knows they’re coming in.”

Racial significance

The racial dichotomy in this case reminded many of other recent incidents when older white men shot black teens to death in situations they claim seemed threatening. 

Carpenter sought to defuse the racial elements of the case by insisting that Wafer didn’t know the color or gender of the person when he shot her. All he knew, she said, was that he opened his front door, noticed the screen frame a few inches out of its hinge and then fired the gun when McBride leaped onto the stoop, startling him.

Monica McBride and Walter Ray Simmons, the parents of Renisha McBride, at her funeral on Nov. 8, 2013.
Joshua Lott / Reuters / Landov

“Ted is shattered,” Carpenter said. “He knows immediately that he killed somebody … It was only after that he saw it was a shorter person. She seemed dark-complected but he isn’t sure. He didn’t know anything before he shot. All he knew was, ‘People are breaking into my house.’”

Yet civil rights advocates insist that the case has racial significance even if that’s true, as proved by the fact that the defense felt the need to bring in Wafer’s unawareness of it. Carpenter also spent time explaining why this case has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding “stand your ground” laws, which black activists say are designed to give white people an excuse to respond violently when they feel threatened by minority antagonists.

“It can be racial even if it’s not what motivated him,” said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan. “I don’t know if the prosecution believes race is an element of the crime, but the defense felt they needed to head off assumptions the jury might make whether he’s biased or not … If they assume the jury will see this through a racial lens, then race is relevant here in that way.”

The state’s position

Prosecutors didn’t go anywhere near the racial issues before the 12-person jury, of which four members are black. Instead, Hagaman-Clark described the steps Wafer would have needed to take to gather his shotgun and fire it. 

“It is the state’s position that taking a gun and having it loaded, having the safety off, opening a locked door and aiming at an unarmed stranger was a situation created likely to cause great bodily injury,” she said. “It has to be loaded, locked, the safety has to be off and the trigger has to be pulled. There’s no hair trigger on this shotgun. It requires 6.5 pounds of pressure to fire it.”

After opening statements, prosecutors called McBride’s mother and best friend. Between the two of them, they established that McBride had drunk vodka and smoked marijuana in the evening of Nov. 1 at home. Her mother said she and McBride argued because the teen hadn’t cleaned the house, and McBride left the house by car at around 11:15 p.m.

Around 1 a.m., she crashed her car into that of Carmen Beasley, who lives about a mile from Wafer on the Detroit side of the city limits. Beasley said she tried to get McBride to stay put as they waited for the police and an ambulance, but McBride vanished.

“She just wanted to go home,” Beasley testified. “She wasn’t belligerent. She was young and she just wanted to be at home. That was her goal, to be home.”

Carpenter insisted in her opening statement that little of that matters: “Why was she there? Who else was with her? None of us have the answers. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not about Renisha. How would you feel if this is what you saw?”

Fancher said the jury must decide whether Wafer’s version of events is credible, but defense attorneys have declined to say whether the defendant will testify. Either way, Carpenter said the jury and the public should not infer anything from Wafer’s stoicism.

“If you’re looking at what he says and how he says it, you should know … he’s not a loud one,” Carpenter told the jury in her opening. “He doesn’t show emotion. But he’s human like all of us.”

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