No one may ever know why 19-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on the door of Theodore Wafer’s house in a Detroit suburb before dawn in November. But there is no dispute that Wafer, 55, afraid and groggy, shot McBride through his screen door, killing her, and then called 911.
After an emotional trial in a city where racial tensions have been escalating during bankruptcy proceedings, Wafer was sentenced Wednesday to 17 to 32 years in prison as McBride’s family watched. Wafer is white and McBride was black.
“I do not believe that you are a coldblooded murderer or that this case had anything to do with race,” Judge Dana M. Hathaway told Wafer as she handed down the sentence. “I do believe that you acted out of fear, but an unjustified fear has never been an excuse for taking someone’s life.”
Wafer’s attorneys have already said that he plans to appeal. Wafer, an airport maintenance worker, read a short apology in court.
“To the parents, family and friends of Renisha McBride, I apologize from the bottom of my heart and I am truly sorry for your loss. I can only hope and pray,” he said, tearing up, “that somehow you can forgive me.”
Wafer will serve 17 years before he is up for parole.
McBride’s sister, Jasmine, 23, said that she was “very satisfied” with the sentence, although she said she did not believe Wafer’s statement was sincere.
“Someday down the line, I have to forgive him,” she said. She read a short statement in court calling her sister “a goofy person whose smile would light up the room.... Many days I think about the good times we shared and how it was cut short by a person's cowardly actions.”
McBride had been involved in an accident several blocks from Wafer’s house. Her family believes she was knocking on his door for help. An autopsy found that she died of a single gunshot wound to the face.
McBride’s father, Walter Simmons, said in court that Wafer “ruined our family life.”
Defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter reminded the judge that this was not a premeditated murder. A recording of the 911 call Wafer placed after the shooting offered no clarity as to why he shot McBride.
“Uh, yes.... I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun, banging on my door,” he said. He then gave his address, and, sounding a little confused, thanked the dispatcher and hung up.
“He has never been so afraid in his life,” Carpenter said, explaining the shooting. “He was in an extreme emotional state.... It is Mr. Wafer’s state of mind that you need to look at.”
Wafer lived in Dearborn Heights, a middle-class, predominantly white suburb west of Detroit. He testified during the trial that crime was rising in his neighborhood and said he “didn’t want to cower” in his own home. Tensions between neighboring towns and counties and the city of Detroit have been running high for as long as the city has struggled economically.
Carpenter presented a number of reasons the judge could have given a lesser sentence, including Wafer’s age, arguing that 17 years was a “death sentence.” She also said that he could be rehabilitated.
“They don’t think he's a bad guy,” she said of the jurors, tearing up. “They don’t want a life sentence, they told you that.”
Carpenter told reporters that Wafer was in a state of shock after the sentencing and didn’t appear to understand what was happening to him. She said she believed he would die in prison because his health is deteriorating from a life working physically demanding jobs. He was harassed in prison Wednesday morning as he prepared to go to court, she said.
Carpenter said she believes the case was affected by previous shootings of unarmed African Americans by white people.
“I think a lot of people thought in this case that there have been so many unjustified killings of African Americans that do go unnoticed — this could have been Trayvon Martin in our courtroom,” she said, referring to the black teenager who was shot to death in Florida in 2012.
Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of 17 years in Wafer’s case. He was found guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a minimum sentence of 15 years, and two additional years were sought because a gun was involved.