At first glance when the local news first reported the shooting death of 19 year old Renisha McBride, an African-Amercian female, who was shot and killed by a white homeowner, Theodore Wafer, 54, of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, an immediate feeling of frustration and anger was experienced by the African-American community not only in Detroit, but nationwide.
Although the initial news reports did not provide many details of the incident other than Renisha McBride being involved in an auto-accident and possibly looking for further help and assistance, the racial overtones and circumstances of the killing undoubtedly channeled those of the recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, followed by the acquittal of his shooter George Zimmerman. The obvious similarities include 1) Death by gun; 2) a youth or teen who died as a result of a shooting at the hands of an adult; and 3) unclear facts and few witnesses to the incident. The racial overtones, frustration and outrage in the Trayvon Martin incident however are mirrored in the case of Renisha McBride by a similar pattern of 1) Delayed police investigations and reporting; 2) Delayed Arrest and prosecution of shooting suspect; 3) Unarmed Black teen located in a predominately white community; and 4) National media attention zeroing in on the issues of race, self defense and gun laws.
As an African-American criminal defense attorney in Detroit, both the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride raise many conflicting and often times challenging legal and racial issues within me. In the case of Trayvon Martin, I had to question why a teenage child armed with nothing but a iced-tea and pack of skittles had to meet such an untimely and unfortunate violent death. A death that many believed could have been avoided had George Zimmerman simply followed the directions of the 911 operator and stayed put without taking it upon himself to actively follow Trayvon Martin.
The criminal defense attorney in me however strongly believes in the use of self-defense, and if I were representing George Zimmerman at trial, I could definitely rationalize before a jury the use of deadly force if Zimmeran believed his life was in immediate danger at the hands of Trayvon Martin. Admittingly, once the jury verdict was read and George Zimmerman was found not guilty, I again empathized with the pain, grief, and feeling of forgone justice that Trayvon Martin’s parents and the African-American community would soon endure. However, as a criminal defense lawyer I could not help be feel a sense of relief knowing that legally the prosecution absolutely failed to meet its burden of proof based upon a charge of predmediated murder, and that the jury had no choice but to return such a verdict based upon the weak and often inconsistent evidence the prosecution provided.
Unfortunately, a similar conflict within me will once again arise as more details of the Renisha McBride killing surfaces and the criminal matter proceeds to trial. As a criminal defense attorney, I understand the importance of advocating for, and providing a zealous defense of your case, regardless of the race, gender, or orientation of the clients we represent. I also understand the prosecutor’s duty to seek justice for the victims of crimes and the clients they represent. But in cases such as Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride, the difficulties of separating my experiences as an African-American and that of an criminal defense lawyer will always exist.
Racial overtones will undoubtedly intertwine themselves with many of the facts and details in this case, despite Renisha McBride’s parents request to exclude race as being a predominant factor. Renisha McBride: Parents do not want race to be considered as factor in case. An array of legal issues such as self defense, reasonable force, permissive use of deadly force, homeowner’s rights, and gun laws will pervade both the courtroom of law and the courtroom of public opinion for weeks to come. However the conflicting issue for many, including myself will come down to the question of whether or not Theodore Wafer’s shooting of Renisha McBride was motivated not by a honest belief of imminent danger and intrusion, but rather by the color of her skin. I know that racial conflicts and challenges will always exist in my criminal practice as tragic stories and incidents of gun violence are one too many in urban cities such as Detroit. In the meantime however, I must continue to learn from the experiences of both the Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride incidents and only hope that as a nation we learn a valuable lesson on race and law as well.