After porch shooting, Wafer's attorney rests from cases

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News
  • When the case was over, Carpenter did an about face.
  • "I realized I was putting my client ahead of everything else."
  • Carpenter went to see Wafer to ask for forgiveness.

The last time the country, if not the world, was watching attorney Cheryl Carpenter, she broke down weeping in court.

In late August, Carpenter was arguing for leniency in the sentencing of her client, Theodore Wafer. Wafer, 55, was found guilty in the shooting death of Renisha McBride, 19, after she pounded on his front door in the middle of the night. Through tears, Carpenter pleaded Wafer "shows more remorse than any client I have ever seen."

Now, almost a year to the day of the Nov. 2 murder that thrust Carpenter into the spotlight, she cringes at the memory.

"I've never cried like that in a courtroom," she said, sitting cross-legged on her couch in her Birmingham home. "I was horrified by it. Society does not accept tears or emotion very well. Especially from attorneys."

Still, the 44-year-old will attest: The very passion that caused her to lose her composure is the same force that draws her to the most hopeless of cases.

"The ones who are the most powerless, the ones who are the most hated and the ones who are the most prejudged are the ones I want to help the most," she said. "It feels like my calling. I want to fight for the biggest underdog."

With Wafer, she said she became so emotionally invested. "I understood Ted as a person, a good person, a person who felt so powerless. In my role as an advocate, I wanted to help him and protect him."

But when the case was over, Carpenter did an about-face. She let her assistant go and gave up her office.

"I am officially on a year sabbatical from full-time legal practice" she announced in a blog she started about her new venture. The mother of two boys, Bradley, 6, and Dylan, 8, and wife of Leland Babitch, a pediatrician, she declared: "My new profession for the next year is Stay at Home Mom." The blog is about "living life in the moment by connecting and having a hell of a good time doing it."

The last two months Carpenter has relished walking to the bus stop in the morning and afternoon with her boys and their standard poodle, Tiger. She prefers cleaning out the garage and working on Halloween costumes to worrying about the next motion due or if Jenny, the babysitter, can stay an extra couple hours with the kids.

"I realized I was putting my client ahead of everything else," Carpenter said. "At one point, I said to my husband, 'Do you think I'm obsessed?' and he said, 'No, you're just single-minded.' So he kind of gave me a pass, but the kids didn't. They felt it."

Kim Benjamin, a criminal defense attorney in Kansas City, said the decision of her friend and fellow faculty member of the Trial Lawyers College to take a leave of absence was courageous.

"A good trial lawyer takes an incredible amount of time and commitment into learning their client's story and in trying to save them," said Benjamin, who is also a former president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "That pressure can really take a toll. I really applaud Cheryl's decision to put her family first and take care of what's most important."

The daughter of an attorney and an inner-city school teacher, Carpenter was raised in Livonia and has practiced law for 15 years, first as a public defender. No stranger to controversial cases, she is most well-known for having freed some 35 youth offenders from the sex offender registry in Michigan. She is ardently opposed to the registry because she said it does not differentiate between consenting under-age teenagers in love and having sex, and "a 50-year-old child molester taking advantage of a 6-year-old."

Still, the Wafer-McBride case came on the heels of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida which was intensely scrutinized and covered by worldwide media.

"The pressure was different than any other case I'd ever had," she said. "We had the ghost of Trayvon Martin in the courtroom."

In one breath, she insisted, "This case was not racial. I can say, with 100-percent confidence, that Ted did not know who was on his front porch when he saw a figure coming at him." In the next, she said: "It didn't help that after (George) Zimmerman was acquitted, he acted like an assaultive creep and they thought, probably, we can't led Ted go free and maybe murder another woman."

Last week, attorneys from the state appellate defender's office filed an appeal of Wafer's second-degree murder conviction.

Carpenter was not surprised by questions about the timing of the sabbatical coming right after losing the biggest case of her career, she said.

"A very good attorney friend of mine asked me: 'Did you run away from failure?' Would I have done the same thing if I would have gotten an acquittal? And the answer is yes. The results didn't matter. What I realized after the case is that I missed my kids."

As stressful as the case was, she has no regrets.

"I am grateful because maybe I wouldn't be where I am now," she says. "I needed a huge case to kind of flatten me. To wake me up."

Carpenter did go to see Wafer in prison — he was sentenced to a minimum of 17 years — to ask for forgiveness.

"He said he didn't blame me, and he was appreciative. So that was a huge weight off my shoulders."

She's still teaching and mentoring young attorneys and will take on a smaller trial here and there. For now, the verdict is: "My kids are happy. I realized if mommy's not happy, they're not happy."