July 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

With jury selection set to begin, self-defense key issue in Dearborn Heights porch shooting trial

Wafer (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit— Jury selection begins Monday in the murder trial of Theodore Wafer, a 55-year-old Dearborn Heights homeowner charged in the shooting death of 19-year-old Detroiter Renisha McBride last year and whose case has grabbed national headlines drawing comparisons to the racially charged Trayvon Martin case in Florida.

A jury pool of 200 Wayne County residents has been reserved for possible service in the case, which, like the Martin case, involves a white shooter and a black victim.

Wafer, an airport maintenance worker, is charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony use of a firearm in McBride’s death. Authorities say Wafer shot McBride in the face with a shotgun as she knocked on the front door to this home in the early morning on Nov. 2, following a car accident. The home is on West Outer Drive near Warren on the Dearborn Heights and Detroit border.

Police say they received a 911 call around 4:42 a.m. reporting a fatal shooting.

“I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun, banging on my door,” Wafer said on the 911 call. Wafer’s lawyers have said he believed McBride was an intruder.

But McBride’s family said she was on Wafer’s porch seeking help after a single-car accident on Brammell and West Warren in Detroit about three hours earlier. Witnessestestified during a preliminary examination in the case that the young woman was dazed and confused as she walked away from the car crash about a mile from Wafer’s home.

There has been no explanation for the whereabouts of McBride from the time she wrecked her car until she appeared on Wafer’s porch.

The case has spurred another round of debate around the so-called “Stand Your Ground” law.

Under Michigan law, a person can use deadly force if the individual “has an honest and reasonable belief that imminent death” or any other kind of assault resulting in great bodily harm will occur. The Michigan Stand Your Ground law is commonly referred to as “the Castle Doctrine.” Adopted in 2006, the law means a “man's home is his castle and he has the right to defend it.”

Wayne State University law school professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor, says the Wafer case is not a Stand Your Ground case but is a “classic self-defense.”

The Wafer case does, however, fall under the “the Castle doctrine,” which Henning says is a self-defense law that has been around “since jolly old England.”

At issue, Henning said, is whether Wafer felt he was being threatened and whether it was reasonable under the circumstances. .

“The problem in this case is that you have a grand total of one person still alive who was there,” said Henning. “This comes down to how far away from the door was she when she was shot.”

Farmington Hills attorney Arnold Reed, who defended a Detroit client by invoking the Stand Your Ground law, says Wafer’s attorneys will have a struggle in proving that Wafer needed to use lethal force.

“It’s an uphill battle because he shot through the door,” said Reed. “The Stand Your Ground defense is a lot more plausible if someone is in your home and crosses your threshold.”

For Wafer, Reed added, the “Waterloo” is that he opened the door.

“She wasn’t in his home,” said Reed. “This person was outside the door.”

Reed said Stand Your Ground cases occur every day in Detroit and that “anybody can use this defense” — but the threshold is high. Michigan is among 22 states that have the law.

Wafer has maintained he acted in self-defense after hearing noises that led him to believe someone was trying to break into his home.

Wafer’s attorneys have not characterized the incident as a Stand Your Ground case, so far.

His attorneys, Cheryl and Matt Carpenter, have characterized the incident as self-defense.

Some Metro Detroit community activists have said they don’t believe Wafer would have had the same reaction if McBride, who worked for a Ford Motor Co. contractor, was white.

Jurors are expected to hear 911 calls from Wafer, see videotaped statements Wafer made to police and be given transcripts of those conversations during the trial, which will be presided over by Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway.

It is not yet known if Wafer will take the stand in his own defense. Cheryl Carpenter said she will wait until a jury is selected to determine whether she will seek a change of venue. Jury selection is expected to take a week.

Carpenter is expected to attempt to portray the victim as a troubled teen. The judge denied her request to show jurors a photo, posted on social media, of McBride holding a gun and a bag of marijuana.

The judge said she would allow the defense team to subpoena images of McBride from Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites but will view the photos and video to determine whether they will be shown to the jury.

McBride’s family said although she smoked marijuana, she was an average 19-year-old posting pictures, and the gun she flashed in a photo wasn't real.

The young woman died of a gunshot wound to the face. An autopsy by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that McBride had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit for driving the morning she died. No toxicology reports were done on Wafer that morning, according to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

During a news conference nearly two weeks after the shooting, Worthy said Wafer’s actions show that self-defense was not warranted.

“Under Michigan law, there is no duty to retreat in your own home; however, someone who claims self-defense must honestly and reasonably believe that he is in imminent danger of either losing his life of suffering great bodily harm, and that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent that harm,” said Worthy during the Nov. 15 news conference. “This ‘reasonable belief’ is not measured subjectively, by the standards of the individual in question, but objectively, by the standards of a reasonable person.”

About 35 witnesses on both sides are expected to testify during the trial, which is expected to last three weeks.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com
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