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Trial begins in shooting of Renisha McBride. Does 'Castle Doctrine' apply?

Mark GuarinoThe Christian Science Monitor

Jurors heard opening arguments Wednesday in the trial of Theodore Wafer, a Dearborn Heights, Mich., man charged with second-degree murder in the death of Renisha McBride, a woman he says he thought was an intruder when he shot her through his front door in the early morning hours last November 2.

In the opening statements, one theme emerged that will undoubtedly remain front and center in the trial: Where are the legal boundaries when it comes to using deadly force for home protection?

The answer to that question will determine the fate of Mr. Wafer, who used a shotgun to kill the unarmed 19-year-old Ms. McBride on his front porch. Police say she was shot once in the face. Wafer is also charged with manslaughter and felony use of a firearm in her death.

Michigan law states that a homeowner can use deadly force if he or she “has an honest and reasonable belief that imminent death” or bodily harm will occur. The so-called “Castle Doctrine” is law in 22 states.

Defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter told jurors Wednesday that Wafer awakened to a booming disturbance outside his home, which made him “afraid for his life.” All he saw, Ms. Carpenter said, was a “shadowy figure” outside his window. The police report says McBride was wearing black boots, dark blue jeans, and a blue zip-up hooded sweatshirt.

“His heart is coming out of his chest…. He went to get his shotgun. It’s not his first decision. Everyone is asking why. He didn’t know what else to do,” Carpenter said. She also showed jurors the front screen door to Wafer’s home, which she suggested was damaged by McBride’s tampering.

County prosecutor Danielle Hagaman-Clark said Wafer’s actions “were unnecessary, unjustified, and unreasonable” and added that they were premeditated.

McBride showed up on Wafer’s porch following a car accident three hours earlier. What she did in the time between then, and when she showed up on Wafer’s porch, is unknown. A friend testified Wednesday that she drank vodka and smoked marijuana before the accident.

Prosecutors say the Michigan law permitting deadly force does not apply to Wafer because he shot through a screen door that was locked even when police arrived, nor is there evidence that McBride entered his home, therefore negating Wafer’s claim of facing an imminent threat inside his home.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told reporters in November that Wafer “did not act in lawful defense.”

“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.… This ‘reasonable belief’ is not measured subjectively, by the standards of the individual in question, but objectively, by the standards of a reasonable person,” Ms. Worthy said.

However Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Wayne State University, told the Detroit News that he agrees with Wafer’s defense team and believes it is a classic Castle Doctrine case.

Swaying jurors will depend on proving whether Wafer felt he was legitimately threatened and if his actions were reasonable.

“The problem in this case is that you have a grand total of one person still alive who was there,” said Professor Henning.