DETROIT -- As a prosecutor showed a jury photos of Renisha McBride, her father rushed out of the court room. The photos of the 19-year-old -- first smiling, and then lying lifeless on a porch -- were shown in quick succession at the beginning of one of the most highly publicized and racially charged trials of the year.
Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of Theodore Wafer, the 55-year-old Dearborn Heights, Michigan, man charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of McBride.
Wafer is accused of shooting her with a shotgun through his locked screen door around 4:40 a.m. on Nov. 2. His attorney seeks to show that he was in fear for his life and shot her in self-defense, while the prosecutor has maintained Wafer had no reason to be fearful, and killed an unarmed, impaired woman.
“His actions that night were unnecessary, unjustified and unreasonable,” Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Danielle Hagaman-Clark said.
Defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said what happened to McBride was “horrible” but that the jury should set aside their feelings and focus on the law.
“It’s not about Renisha, it’s about what her actions and other persons’ actions did to make Ted in fear for his life that night,” Carpenter said. “You always need to go back and look at this through Ted’s eyes.”
McBride is black and lived in Detroit; Wafer is white and lived in the suburbs. While the victim and defendant’s skin color aren’t expected to be discussed in the trial itself, the racial implications of the incident have been at the forefront for many who have followed the case. Civil rights leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) have called for justice. Some have said her and others’ deaths point to a system that marginalizes or incriminates black victims while giving leeway to their attackers.
On Wednesday, Carpenter revealed new details about Wafer’s state of mind before the shooting. He fell asleep early in front of the TV and was woken in the middle of night to loud, repeated banging on his side door and then front door, Carpenter said.
First, he looked for his cell phone -- he doesn’t have a landline -- but couldn’t find it. He turned off the TV and lights to hide the fact that he was home. He looked out of his peephole and saw “a shadowy figure” leaving his porch and going around his house. He believed multiple people were trying to get into his house. There was more banging, hard enough to rattle a window. Carpenter said getting a gun wasn’t Wafer’s first action, but came after he continued to be afraid for his life.
Wafer opened the door, saw someone very close to him and shot. Afterward, he found his phone in the pocket of his pants hanging in the bathroom.
It’s likely that expert witnesses testifying on either side will present differing accounts of what happened leading up to McBride’s death. Hagaman-Clark said they will show there were no signs of someone breaking into the house. Carpenter referenced evidence, including that Wafer’s peephole was shattered, to show he had reason to fear a break-in.
Several hours earlier, McBride crashed her car nearby in Detroit. Carmen Beasley, who heard the crash outside her home and went outside to check on the situation, said McBride appeared “discombobulated” after the accident. McBride was holding her head in her hands and unable to find her cell phone to call for help. Beasley went inside to call 911, but McBride had left the scene by the time EMS arrived. It's not completely clear what happened to McBride between the accident and arriving on Wafer's porch.
“I don’t believe there will be any real argument [that Wafer caused McBride’s death],” Hagaman-Clark said in her opening statement, after playing the 911 call in which Wafer says he shot a woman on his porch. “It’s not the People’s position that he intended to kill Renisha McBride. … [But that he] knowingly created a situation where death or great harm is likely to occur.”
McBride’s mother Monica testified, as did her best friend Amber Jenkins, who was with her earlier that night. Jenkins said she and Renisha McBride played drinking games at the latter's house, together consuming about half of a fifth of vodka and three marijuana blunts. Jenkins left after the two had a disagreement. But McBride is “laid-back” and “chill” when she drinks and smokes, Jenkins said. Monica McBride arrived home after work, snapped at her daughter for not doing certain chores, and told her not to leave the house. She went upstairs to change, and when she came back down, Renisha McBride was gone.
McBride has been compared to others black victims, most notably Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder. Last year, Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death in Charlotte, North Carolina, by a police officer while looking for help after a car accident. The officer, Randall Kerrick, was indicted for voluntary manslaughter.
Writer Dream Hampton organized a rally for McBride in Detroit last year.
“I think that this is racism no matter who does or doesn't frame it this way," Hampton said at the time. "That's what [we're taught]: Black bodies ... even at their most vulnerable, even when they are coming to you for help, even when they're female, they are a possible danger."
Theodore Wafer’s trial began Monday with jury selection in Wayne County Circuit Court. It is expected to last into next week.