The jury has returned a verdict of guilty of second degree murder/voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges in the trial of Detroit homeowner Theodore Wafer for the front porch shooting death of Renisha McBride in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013.  Trial Judge Hathaway has ordered Wafer imprisoned immediately, pending sentencing.

UPDATE: Sentencing scheduled for Aug. 21 to Aug. 25 time frame.

Wafer’s legal defense against the charge was self-defense.  The guilty verdict necessarily means that the jury unanimously agreed that the prosecution had disproved Wafer’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.  The two strongest arguments counter to self-defense were:

“Accident” and “I didn’t know the gun was loaded”

(1) Wafer’s early and repeated references to the shooting as an “accident,” including his claims that he was unaware the shotgun was loaded, only to later claim the shooting was an act of “self-defense.”

“Accident” and “self-defense” are logically inconsistent arguments.  “Self-defense” is an inherently intentionally act–I see a threat, I respond to the threat.  “Accident” is by definition something we do not intend.  When a defendant argues one, they generally lose the other–sometimes as a matter of law, often just in terms of the credibility of their narrative of innocence with the jury. The prosecution in this trial also requested and received a jury instruction on prior false exculpatory statements as consciousness of guilt evidence, and that certainly could not have helped the jury lean towards self-defense if they believed Wafer’s early claims of “accident” were an effort to escape legal jeopardy.

Unlocking and Opening the Steel Front Door

(2) Wafer’s decision to unlock and open the steel front door of his home. McBride never, in FACT, threatened entry–whatever she might have done to the screen door, there remained the steel door to get through. Had that steel door been substantively damaged or had there been any evidence to suggest an actual entry was imminent, I think Wafer would have been fine. Absent that, however, the jury likely expected him to hunker down and wait until entry was imminent before using deadly force–and certainly not to unlock and open that very steel door that was keeping the “intruders” outside.

Background of the Case

The undisputed facts of the case are that Renisha McBride was driving her car the night of November 1 while under the influence of some multiple of the state’s allowable blood-alcohol limit, as well as with active marijuana in her system. She crashed her car, disabling it, and apparently striking her head on the windshield. She abandoned the crash site and essentially disappeared for the next several hours.

Around 4:30 a.m. on the morning of November 2 Theodore Wafer was awoken from sleep by McBride banging on his front door. The defense claims the banging was alarmingly vigorous, and that there were similar sounds coming from other exterior doors and windows of the house. The state claims McBride was merely knocking on his door in a normal manner in order to seek assistance. Wafer, unable to immediately find his cell phone, retrieved his home-defense shotgun, a pistol-gripped Mossberg 12 gauge loaded with #4 shot. He approached the locked front door of his home, unlocked and opened it. He then discharged the shotgun through his locked screen door. The shot struck McBride in the face, mortally wounding her. Wafer located his cell phone, called 911, and police were on the scene within a few minutes.

Competing Narratives of Guilt and Innocence

The state’s narrative of guilt presents Wafer as a man who acted unreasonably to the presence of a 19-year-old black woman who was simply seeking assistance after a car accident.

The defense’s narrative of innocence presents Wafer as a homeowner awoken from sleep by noises reasonably consistent with a possible burglary attempt–his immediate neighborhood experiences some hundreds of burglaries and other violent felonies each year–and who fired in reasonable fear of death or grave bodily harm and from within his “castle” when suddenly confronted by the erratically behaving McBride.

Key to the defense’s narrative in it’s opening statement is that the hole in the screen of the screen door could only be positioned as found if McBride had used so much force on the screen door that the screen was knocked out of position prior to the shot being fired.

Wafer’s Testimony, Closing Arguments, and Prior Trial Events

On Monday, August 4th, Theodore Wafer took the stand in his own defense to explain in his own words the events that unfolded that fateful November 2 morning. He described hearing blows on his front and side door that were of escalating violence and hard enough to “shake the floor” of his home, putting him in great fear of attackers entering his home. With respect to the shooting he insisted that it was self-defense, it was “either them or me.” He described how he had opened his front door when suddenly a figure lunged at him from the right side of the doorway, and he fired instinctively in self-defense. Wafer’s direct examination by defense lawyer Cheryl Carpenter can be seen below:

Following his direct examination, Wafer was naturally subject to about two hours of cross-examination by the prosecution. Details of both can be read here: Homeowner Takes the Stand in Detroit Front Porch Murder Trial.  Events of the trial prior to Wafer’s testimony can be found here:  Detroit Front Porch Shooting Case: What you need to know heading into Week 3.  Events following Wafer’s testimony, including the closing arguments of the prosecution and defense, can be found here:  Detroit Front Porch Murder Trial: Closing Arguments, Jury Deliberations.

The Criminal Charge: Second Degree Murder/Voluntary Manslaughter

In any criminal trial the state bears the burden for proving each and every element of the criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The two charges facing Wafer are: (1) Second degree murder/voluntary manslaughter (effectively the same crime under Michigan law; and (2) Involuntary manslaughter based on gross negligence, a charge added to the instructions the prior day.  (This second charge was agreed to by the judge only shortly before closing arguments.)

To convict Wafer of second degree murder/voluntary manslaughter the prosecution must convince the jury that they have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Wafer “knowingly created very high risk of death or grave bodily harm knowing that death or such harm would be the likely result of his actions.”

Self-Defense Under Michigan Law

Because Wafer has raised a legal defense of self-defense, however, the state bears an additional burden.

The state must disprove at least one element of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Michigan self-defense statute central to this case are M.C.L 780.972, Michigan’s “self-defense law,” and M.C.L. 780.951, which provides a presumption of reasonableness in the context of self-defense in the home.

780.972 Use of deadly force by individual not engaged in commission of crime; conditions.
(1) An individual who has not or is not engaged in the commission of a crime at the time he or she uses deadly force may use deadly force against another individual anywhere he or she has the legal right to be with no duty to retreat if either of the following applies:

(a) The individual 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 or herself or to another individual.
(b) The individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent sexual assault of himself or herself or of another individual.

780.951 Individual using deadly force or force other than deadly force; presumption; definitions.
(1) Except as provided in subsection (2), it is a rebuttable presumption in a civil or criminal case that an individual who uses deadly force or force other than deadly force under section 2 of the self-defense act has an honest and reasonable belief that imminent death of, sexual assault of, or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another individual will occur if both of the following apply:

(a) The individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used is in the process of breaking and entering a dwelling or business premises or committing home invasion or has broken and entered a dwelling or business premises or committed home invasion and is still present in the dwelling or business premises, or is unlawfully attempting to remove another individual from a dwelling, business premises, or occupied vehicle against his or her will.
(b) The individual using deadly force or force other than deadly force honestly and reasonably believes that the individual is engaging in conduct described in subdivision (a).

Verdict Indicates Jury Unanimously Rejected Self-Defense

The jury’s verdict of guilty necessarily means that they unanimously agreed that state prosecutors had disproved self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, as was the state’s burden.

The most likely contributors to this conclusion discounting self-defense was Wafer’s early and multiple references to the shooting as an “accident”–which, as an unintentional event, is technically inconsistent with self-defense–and his unlocking and opening his front door, which may have been seen as being unreasonable in the face of a claimed threat.

This conviction follows on the heels of several other high-profile self-defense cases with varied outcomes.  In the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was acquitted within hours of deliberations beginning.  In the trial of Michael Dunn for the shooting death of Jordan Davis, Dunn was found guilty of three counts of attempting to murder  companions, but the jury hung on the murder charge itself (Dunn is to be re-tried on the murder charge later this year).  In the trial of Joseph Walker for the shooting death of Joseph Harvey Jr., police officer Walker was acquitted just days prior to the resolution of the Wafer trial.

Upcoming Self-Defense Trials

Keep your eyes here on Legal Insurrection for detailed, expert coverage of upcoming self-defense trials, including the re-trial of Michael Dunn for the shooting death of Jordan Davis , and the re-trial of Marissa Alexander who is charged with three counts of aggravated assault having discharged a firearm past the heads of her husband and his two minor children.

–-Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog (autographed copies available) and (paperback and Kindle). He holds many state-specific Law of Self Defense Seminars around the country, and produces free online self-defense law educational video- and podcasts at the Law of Self Defense University.


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