DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. — A Detroit-area man who fatally shot a drunk, unarmed woman on his porch will stand trial for second-degree murder, a judge said Thursday, rejecting a self-defense argument for the killer’s “bad choice.”
There is no dispute that Theodore Wafer shot Renisha McBride, 19, through the screen of his front door in the early hours of Nov. 2. His attorneys said the 54-year-old man feared for his life, but Dearborn Heights Judge David Turfe said there were other ways to protect himself, including a phone call for help.
“This court recognizes you can’t automatically penalize someone for making a bad decision when pressed to react quickly,” the judge said. “But at the same time, we can’t allow one to use a bad decision as a shield to criminal prosecution.
“The defendant made a bad choice when there were other reasonable opportunities,” Turfe said.
The standard for a court to order someone to trial in Michigan is not as high as beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the common, traditional threshold to win a criminal conviction. Prosecutors must show only a portion of their evidence at this stage. Indeed, Wafer apparently made a one-hour recorded statement to police, but it was not introduced, despite efforts by his lawyers.
Defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said Wafer didn’t intend to kill McBride, only protect himself. She referred to Michigan’s 2006 self-defense law.
“If someone is breaking into a home, there is a presumption that a homeowner can use deadly force,” she argued.
“You don’t know how many people are out there. … There’s violent banging on the front door. We have a man alone in his home,” Carpenter said.
But Wayne County assistant prosecutor Danielle Hagaman-Clark said it’s “ridiculous” to believe that Wafer was deeply afraid yet still decided to open the door and fire instead of first calling Dearborn Heights police.
“He shoved that shotgun in her face and pulled the trigger,” Hagaman-Clark said.
Civil rights groups have suggested that race may have played a role in the shooting, but prosecutors presented no evidence to make that connection. Wafer is white, while McBride was black.
Wafer called 911 around 4:30 a.m. and said he had shot someone who was banging on his door. More than three hours earlier, McBride had crashed her car into a parked car in a residential neighborhood, about a half-mile away in Detroit.
A witness said McBride was bleeding and holding her head. She apparently walked away from the scene before an ambulance arrived. It’s still unclear, at least publicly, what she did between the time of the car wreck and her arrival on Wafer’s porch.
An autopsy found McBride had a blood-alcohol level of about 0.22, more than twice the legal limit for driving. She also had been smoking marijuana.
Her best friend, Amber Jenkins, 18, said they had been drinking vodka and playing cards seven to eight hours before the shooting was reported to 911.
Spectators, mostly McBride’s family and friends, left the courtroom immediately after the judge’s decision. Wafer, an airport maintenance worker, lingered and appeared dazed as he stood and looked out a courtroom window. He thanked his attorneys and left through a back door.
A second-degree murder conviction can carry a sentence of up to life in prison. A trial judge would have discretion.
Carpenter told reporters the ruling was a disappointment.
“We look forward to trial where you will get all of the evidence,” she said.
Before hearing final arguments, the judge rejected Carpenter’s request to play Wafer’s recorded statement to police. It was not introduced by prosecutors when they presented evidence Wednesday.
Hagaman-Clark, citing Michigan court rules, successfully argued that the defense could play the video only if Wafer would agree to testify and open himself up to cross-examination.
“The videotaped statement is not subject to cross-examination,” the prosecutor said.