Legal Experts Weigh Self Defense and Race in Michigan Shooting

Charges filed in the Renisha McBride case raise sticky legal questions

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The Renisha McBride case, with its echoes of the Trayvon Martin shooting, reignited the national debate over Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, which give citizens the right to defend themselves with deadly force without trying to escape.

“It’s always been the case that in your own home, you do not have an obligation to retreat.” says Professor Peter Henning, who teaches criminal law at Wayne State University law school in Detroit. “That’s true in Michigan and pretty much everywhere else.”

It’s not yet clear what kind of argument Theodore Wafer, the Dearborn Heights man accused of shooting the 19-year-old McBride through his screen door on Nov. 2 and charged with 2nd-degree murder on Friday, might use in his defense. But the bar will be high.

“The standard for self-defense is that you reasonably perceive a threat of death or serious bodily harm from the other person. You respond with equal force. You can’t use deadly force ample to defend your home or to prevent someone from stealing your property. It can only be used for self-defense or defense of others,” Henning says.

Authorities say McBride came to Wafer’s door around 4:30 a.m. after crashing her car. A toxicology report found twice the legal limit of alcohol in her blood.

Could there be valid argument of self-defense in this case if the defendant was behind a locked screen door? “Certainly that’s a possibility,” says Henning. “It is possible that there was shouting, or perhaps an effort to open up the door, or bang on a window or something like that could give him a basis to believe that there was a threat that someone was going to break into his home. From there, you could infer a threat of death or serious bodily harm.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worth said Friday there was no reason to believe Wafer acted in self defense. But she also said the shooting is not being considered racially motivated.

The Dean of Wayne Law School, Jocelyn Benson, emphasizes that there is more at stake. “The perception that it might have been [racially motivated] is one of the concerns that in my view has to be addressed. There has been a reality of racial profiling for many people of color in Dearborn, in Detroit, and in the state of Michigan. Whether that it is the source of this incident or not, there needs to be an ongoing conversation.”