A Michigan man is convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to at least 17-years in prison for shooting an unarmed African-American teenager on his front porch. Renisha McBride arrived heavily intoxicated on the doorstep of Theodore Paul Wafer, 54, in the early morning of November 2, 2013, several hours after crashing her car. Wafer claimed the young woman was trying to break into his house and the gun discharged accidentally.
Theodore Paul Wafer was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and a related gun charge in the death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride.
The well-kept suburb of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, became the next chapter in the discussion of race relations, gun control, and violence on the heels of the George Zimmerman not guilty verdict in Sanford, Florida. Renisha McBride, a nineteen-year-old African-American woman wearing a blue hoodie, was involved in a car accident in a Detroit suburb at around 1:00 AM. Less than three-hours later McBride arrived heavily intoxicated on the front porch of a white homeowner, 54-year-old Theodore Paul Wafer, who shot and killed McBride through his screen door with a shotgun blast.
McBride was unarmed and according to authorities allegedly looking for help when she ventured onto that fateful porch. Wafer alleges that he accidentally shot the unarmed teenager and believed she was breaking into his home.
“I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun banging on my door,” Wafer calmly told the 911 operator following the incident.
The night of November 1, 2013, began with Renisha McBride at home playing drinking games. According to her friend they drank a half bottle of vodka together before getting into an argument that caused her friend to leave.
Just before 1:00 a.m. nearby resident Carmen Beasley heard a huge crash outside of her home. She waited for a few moments before looking outside and realized that a woman later identified as McBride had crashed into her husband’s vehicle which was parked on the street. According to Beasley, McBride was disoriented, appeared to be drunk, and had blood on her hand from a wound. McBride, however, left the scene of the accident before the police arrived, wandered away from the accident scene, returned briefly, and wandered away again. Her whereabouts are unknown from 1:30 a.m. to the time she appeared on Wafer’s porch around 3:40 a.m.
Wafer alleges that he was home alone, scared, and thought someone was breaking into his home after he heard loud banging on his front and side doors. Smudges were found on the side door that defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter argued came from someone banging on the door. A firearms expert for the defense also testified the screen door may have been knocked out of the frame prior to the shooting. However, according to police testimony there was no sign of forced entry, and there was no damage to any locks on Wafer’s home. Some evidence may suggest Wafer opened the front door before he fired through the closed and locked screen door.
Carpenter also alleges that McBride was drunk, belligerent, and suffering from a head wound caused in the car crash. According to a toxicology report McBride’s blood-alcohol content was roughly 0.22 percent – almost three times the .08 legal limit for driving in Michigan and eleven times the .02 legal limit for minors. The report also showed that McBride had marijuana in her system. One of McBride’s friends who had been out drinking with the teenager that night said McBride sounded different and that he worried someone slipped something in her drink. During cross-examination Wayne County Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Kilak Kesha testified that a person can get more aggressive after a brain injury, although a person may also become more quiet and withdrawn.
Wafer told authorities that he accidentally discharged his 12-gauge shotgun. However, expert testimony for the prosecution indicated that Wafer was only about three feet away from McBride when the gun was fired, and there was no possibility the gun fired accidentally.
A lawful claim of self-defense requires an honest and reasonable belief of imminent death or great bodily harm for themselves or another person.
Theodore Wafer was convicted of second-degree murder August 7, 2014, after a nine-day trial and sentenced to at least 17-years in prison. Before he was sentenced, the Dearborn Heights man apologized to McBride’s family, saying he killed a woman who was “too young to leave this world.”
“I will carry that guilt and sorrow forever,” said Wafer, often pausing to control his emotions.
Wafer faced a maximum sentence of life in prison for the second-degree murder charge. Manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. The additional felony firearm charge carries an additional mandatory penalty of two years; Michigan law imposes the two-year sentence when a person is in possession of a firearm while committing or attempting to commit a felony.
McBride’s death came on the heels of a number of other high-profile shooting deaths of young black Americans, including Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina in September, 2013, Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida in November, 2013, and that of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in February 2012, which sparked a national conversation around gun control, race and self-defense laws.
Theodore (“Ted”) Paul Wafer (54) – Dearborn Heights homeowner who admitted shooting and killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride on the front porch of his house after he said she was “banging” on his door, and he believed she was breaking into his home. Wafer was employed in maintenance and transportation for the past ten years at Detroit Metro Airport, where he had the highest security clearance. Wafer attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette for a year and cares for his 81-year-old mother. At his arraignment defense attorneys noted that Wafer has no history of substance abuse or mental illness, and his criminal history consists of “only a couple” drunken driving charges from 20 years ago.
Renisha McBride (19) – African American teenager shot and killed Nov.2, 2013, on the porch of Theodore Paul Wafer. McBride graduated from Southfield High School in 2012 where she was a cheerleader, and she recently accepted a job at Ford. Toxicology reports indicate that on the night she was killed she had a BAC of 0.22, nearly 3x the legal limit, and tested positive for marijuana.
Kym Worthy – Wayne County Prosecutor who announced the charges against Theodore Paul Wafer. “Under Michigan law, there is no duty to retreat in your own home, however, someone who claims self-defense must honestly and reasonably believe that he is in imminent danger of either losing his life or suffering great bodily harm, and that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent that harm,” Worthy added in a statement. “This ‘reasonable belief’ is not measured subjectively, by the standards of the individual in question, but objectively, by the standards of a reasonable person.”
Cheryl Carpenter – Defense attorney for Theodore Paul Wafer.
Gerald Thurswell – Attorney representing the McBride family.
Dr. Kilak Kesha – Wayne County Assistant Medical Examiner who conducted McBride’s autopsy. Kesha testified at the preliminary hearing in response to a toxicology report that showed McBride’s blood-alcohol content was roughly 0.22 percent – more than twice the .08 legal limit for driving in Michigan and eleven times the .02 legal limit for minors. The report also showed that McBride had marijuana in her system. Kesha also testified that at between 0.3 and 0.4% BAC, people usually become comatose, and death from alcohol poisoning generally comes at 0.4. Kesha also determined from the autopsy that McBride had blood on her right hand and had been shot in the head with a shotgun from a range of about three-feet.
Carmen Beasley – A nearby resident who testified at the preliminary hearing that at about 1 a.m. the night of the shooting McBride crashed into her husband’s car which was parked on the street. She said McBride was not belligerent but appeared to be drunk. “I watched a little bit,” Beasley testified, saying the driver later identified at McBride walked away from the crash “like, holding her head.” Beasley further testified that she asked the teen if she was OK and requested her cell phone so she could call someone she knew for help. “She was like patting her pockets,” Beasley said, adding McBride “just kept saying she wanted to go home.”
Detective Sgt. Steve Gurka – Police officer that investigated McBride’s killing and testified at the preliminary hearing. Gurka testified that Wafer’s Mossberg shotgun was found inside near the front door with the spent shell still inside the firearm, and a gun case was found on the floor in another area of the house.
Prosecution – A firearms expert with MSP testified that he doesn’t believe the gun could go off without the trigger being pulled.
Defense – A firearms examiner for the defense testified that he believes McBride was no more than two feet from the gun when it was fired.
Kym Worthy Press Conference Announcing Charges Against Theodore Paul
Even if the shooting was accidental, as Wafer has claimed, is he nevertheless potentially guilty of murder or manslaughter? Under Michigan’s penal law, charging Wafer with murder in the second degree is not unreasonable. The key element in the murder charge is proving that the defendant acted with “malice” and without legal justification.
Under Michigan law, malice requires proof that the defendant had the intent to kill or do great bodily harm, or created and disregarded a very high risk of death, or as one court observed, had the “intent to do an act that is in obvious disregard of life-endangering consequences.” A lesser manslaughter charge requires proof that the defendant caused the death of the victim from the discharge of a firearm that the defendant intentionally pointed at the victim without lawful justification. Thus, what distinguishes manslaughter from murder is the absence of malice, namely, that the killing was committed with gross negligence, a less blameworthy state of mind.
So if Wafer claims that he was awakened in the middle of the night by loud banging at his front door, that he grabbed his shotgun, rushed to the door, and that as he held the gun, and under the stress of the moment the gun discharged accidentally, he might be able to convince a jury that he should not be blamed for McBride’s death. A jury under these circumstances might have a reasonable doubt about whether Wafer acted in utter disregard of human life or even with gross negligence. By contrast, if he perceived that the person on his porch posed no threat, and pointed his gun at the person, and the gun discharged, even accidentally, a jury might conclude that he created an unacceptably high risk of danger by arming himself and under the circumstances behaved so recklessly as to be guilty of murder or manslaughter.
There are a host of obviously relevant questions that need to be addressed. Whether Wafer will claim that his killing was justified as self-defense is hard to predict, but under the circumstances, if he does that will be an extremely difficult argument. Wafer would have to claim that he killed McBride intentionally and allege that he did it because he feared for his life from the unarmed, diminutive young woman who was banging on his door but posed no life-threatening harm. Such a claim might strike most jurors as unconvincing and unreasonable, and so far there are no facts that would make such a claim plausible.