As Theodore Wafer’s trial in the killing of Renisha McBride begins today, the question of African American humanity rears its ugly head. Looking at the recent slew of racially-charged murder cases, being a black American starts to feel like you're a Game of Thrones character — expendable.
Is it acceptable to shoot blacks for playing loud music or walking home in a hoodie? What about knocking on a door for help in a predominantly white neighborhood? The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the non-verdict in Michael Dunn’s first degree murder charge in the killing of Jordan Davis and the need for a second grand jury just to charge the police officer, Randall Kerrick, who shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, who was unarmed, with involuntary manslaughter might make you think twice.
Blaming the victim is a routine defense strategy in cases such as these and Renisha McBride will be no exception. Ted Wafer’s defense team is already digging in.
On November 2, 2013, 19-year-old McBride stumbled onto Wafer's porch in Dearborn Heights, Michigan at 2:30 a.m. after suffering a car accident a town or so away two hours earlier. It is not known where she went between crashing her car and arriving on Wafer’s doorstep. When McBride knocked on Wafer’s screen door, her family says she was looking for help and access to a phone. Wafer opened his front door and fatally shot her in the head through his screen door. He did not call 911 until after he’d fired, telling dispatchers, “I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun, banging on my door.” His attorneys say he was fearful for his life.
After the incident, Wafer was not arrested. Instead he turned himself in nearly two weeks later on November 15, the day of his arraignment when he was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and possession of a felony firearm.
From her family’s perspective McBride’s murder was racially charged; a black women asked for assistance and was instead seen as a threat by a white man and killed. On the other hand, Wafer’s defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter highlighted that McBride’s blood alcohol level at the time of her death was twice the legal limit and she had marijuana in her system. Carpenter said that Wafer was afraid so he shot McBride in self defense.
"Ms. McBride could have thought she was breaking into her marijuana supplier's house" when she was shot on the porch, the defense attorney claimed during pre-trial.
Michigan does not have a Stand Your Ground law, which Zimmerman notoriously benefitted from in Florida, but the state does have their own definition of self-defense, which is given to juries when a defendant claims self defense and it includes the following clarification:
“An individual … may use deadly force against another individual anywhere he or she has the legal right to be with no duty to retreat if … he or she honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself.”
This is where things get tricky; those words can be applied to a multitude of scenarios and a jury must decide if the person in question was truly in a situation where they could legally use such force.
Though the proceedings have not officially started, the victim is clearly already on trial. Last month, to build a case casting McBride as a credible threat, Carpenter pushed to include the deceased’s texts, social media, emails, school records and a previous legal history as evidence to ascertain "whether Ms. McBride had a character trait for aggression" and assert that she was a drug dealer. But on June 27, a judge denied Carpenter’s request, citing that the messages did not portray the deceased as an aggressor before she was fatally shot.
Ultimately, it is not clear how Michigan’s legal definition of self defense will come into play during Wafer’s trial, but Detroit criminal attorney Jeffrey L. Edison says you can never extricate race from the criminal justice system.
“A lot will depend on the jury’s perception in terms of Wafer having an honest and reasonable belief he was about to sustain serious bodily harm or death,” Edison tells Jezebel. “If you have a jury of persons who have similar perceptions of fear and stereotypical fear of African Americans, Wafer might prevail because America has a problem with perceiving African Americans as criminals and when people see a criminal, they think of African Americans. It’s a socio-political dynamic that emanates from white supremacy and we struggle with it every day in the courts.”
And while the previous trials surrounding the deaths of Martin, Davis and Ferrell were in Florida and North Carolina respectively, in Edison’s opinion, racially-based perceptions can cross state lines.
“In Renisha’s case, an African American juror is less inclined to accept any notion that Wafer was in fear for his life when he saw this young African American girl on his doorstep, where a white juror might have a greater inclination to accept that explanation,” continues Edison. “You can never minimize or avoid the impact of race in the criminal justice system. You deal with it as best you can but you can’t engage the process naively and think ‘Oh, race is no problem.’"
With Carpenter’s early attempts to include McBride’s online profile into evidence and the fact that the case is Wafer’s word against a dead woman’s final actions, a skeptical mind could find innumerable ways for justice to fail against the backdrop of Martin, Davis and Ferrell. But even with the history of blacks dying like Ned Stark, Duke Law professor Neil Vidmar, a leading mind on jury selection and activity, says most juries are just doing the best they can to deliver justice.
“Juries do a pretty good job, not to say that they don’t make mistakes,” Vidmar says. “But those might be the mistakes of the prosecution or the defense and they way they present the evidence.”
Lisa Bloom, an MSNBC legal pundit, made a similar claim in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, saying the defense didn’t drive home evidence that would’ve proved his guilt without a doubt. But even when information is presented properly, sometimes it’s tough to keep out societal influences.
“I’ve testified under oath in court and done survey research and found that sometimes the media taints the community in such a way that it's not possible to get a fair trial, either in that community or in some nearby community,” says Vidmar. “Or that the trial should be delayed should be for a time.”
Elsewhere, the links between Wafer, Zimmerman, Kerrick and Dunn are more nuanced. One prominent voice in race and politics thinks that justice might have a chance in Michigan in a way that it did not in other states but that may not change the way people of color view the outcome, whatever it may be.
“Michael Dunn did not go free, but the jury could not agree to convict Dunn on the most serious charge he faced,” MSNBC host and Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry says of a jury’s inability to reach a verdict on Dunn’s charge of first degree murder in the fatal shooting of Davis. “That led many of us to feel justice was not served and that Jordan Davis' death is not taken seriously by the system. Undoubtedly our collective responses to the Dunn verdict are shaped by the pain and anger many of us continue to feel in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial.”
Harris-Perry points out that Stand Your Ground won’t be a defense in Wafer’s case because unlike Florida, Michigan doesn’t have that law.
“But if Mr. Wafer is exonerated,” she adds. “The sense of outrage and sadness will be increased by the recent experiences of Dunn and Zimmerman.”
It remains to be seen how justice will or will not manifest itself in Wayne County but it is clear that America’s track record isn’t so good.