The prosecution started their opening argument saying all Renisha McBride wanted to do was go home on November 2, 2013 when she was fatally shot by Theodore Wafer on his porch. She was injured, intoxicated, perhaps disoriented and seeking help. The case is now in the hands of the jury. Until they deliberate and reach a verdict, no one will know how the case will finally conclude.
In recapping the case, there are many pieces that affect a jury’s decision. And the victim in a murder case is never able to tell their side of the story. It is told through the lens of the police who investigated it, how well they did their job, the prosecutors who prepared the case for trial, and the defendant, if he/she takes the stand. The other factors are the jury racial, ethnic and gender make up, the judge’s jury instructions, the subtle biases of the jury and the demeanor of the prosecutor and defense attorneys. No one factor stands alone.
In any case, the jury is a crucial component. One journalist accounts the jury as 4 African Americans and 8 white persons. Another reports the jury should now consist of 5 whites, predominantly male; 3 Middle Eastern/Arab Americans, and 4 African Americans. #RenishaMcBride
— idabwellsinstitute (@idabeewells) August 6, 2014
In a case where a middle aged white man alleges fear from possibly several persons pounding on his doors with floors vibrating, in the early morning hours, by a black woman, the fact that the jury is not all white is crucial. And that’s where the subtle biases may exist in the minds of the jury. Although, the defendant, Theodore Wafer did not know the person knocking was a black woman, he knew it was a dark complexioned person. The jury knows Renisha was a black woman. And with McBride being a black woman, certain stereotypes could play out in the minds of some white jurors. When a white jury hears a middle aged white man claim that he felt afraid and threatened due to the loud banging and pounding on his doors and windows by a dark figure, fearing multiple persons and not wanting to be a victim, those white jurors may likely put themselves in the shoes of Wafer. And they may think that what he did what was reasonable under the circumstances. Additionally, the media often portrays black women as the “angry black woman” which could bolster Wafer’s claims with a white jury. That’s why the diversity of this jury is crucial.
And the jury instructions in any case are crucial. Wafer asserted on the witness stand that he was defending himself from a perceived attack. In the case of Wafer, the law on self -defense in Michigan requires no duty to retreat if there is an actual attack. And the judge stated that there was no attack by McBride on Wafer’s porch. The jury was instructed on the credibility of the witnesses. The jury is always the judges of the facts and can determine who and what to believe.
And Judge Dana Hathaway also gave an instruction on false exculpatory statements. Wafer gave two entirely different accounts of the incident. Wafer testified on Day 9 of the trial and told a riveting account of the early morning hours of November 2, 2013 when he shot and killed McBride. His court room version was an emotional account with tears on how he was scared hearing the thunderous pounding of his front, side and back doors with metal hitting the door and his floors vibrating. Believing that multiple persons were attempting to break in his house, he didn’t want to cower or be a victim in his own home. Now contrast the court room version with the one he accounted to police just 2-3 hours after the killing. That was a wholly different tale. On the morning of the shooting when everything was still fresh in Wafer’s mind, he told a different version and never mentioned a perceived attack, his fear, his suspicion of multiple persons and multiple pounding on doors and windows. He stated the shooting was an accident immediately following the killing. His story presumably changed when his attorneys became involved.
Judge Dana Hathaway has worked to keep the trial moving in a swift manner. That’s important for both sides. A slow moving trial is never good for either side. I have followed the case closely because at any given time, I could be Renisha McBride. As an African American woman, living in a mostly white neighborhood, I have thought long and hard about what happened to her. And no one should ever lose their life like she did. And so I hope that this time, justice will prevail for Renisha McBride.
Debbie Hines is a practicing trial attorney and former prosecutor who has tried homicides, burglaries, narcotics and sex offense crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009 which focuses on gender and race issues in the law. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.