Michigan shooting revives questions about race and guns

Demonstrators in Florida and Michigan have used the same language to describe the shootings of two young African Americans. But the killings of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Renisha McBride this month raise different legal questions along the touchy intersection of race and guns.

Both Martin, 17, and McBride, 19, were unarmed when they were shot. The two men who killed them — George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin in Florida, and Theodore P. Wafer, 54, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., a white man arraigned Friday afternoon on murder charges in the death of McBride — say they committed no crime.

But civil rights activists say the two slayings are symptoms of the same condition: a society that undervalues the life of people of color and a legal system that often makes it hard to prosecute those who kill. Civil rights groups across the political spectrum, joined by members of the Obama administration, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., have questioned so-called stand your ground laws that expand how the idea of self-defense is applied.

"Theodore Wafer will stand trial for his deadly actions; prosecutors and law enforcement have determined that Wafer did not act in lawful self-defense," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, which describes itself as the nation's largest online civil rights organization.

"ColorOfChange remains committed to our long-standing efforts to repeal deadly, racially biased shoot-first laws, which have painted a target on the backs of black people, wherever they are on the books," Robinson said. "In both life and death, black men and women like Renisha McBride have their lives criminalized and bodies devalued by a system that too often does not protect them."

In terms of the law and circumstances, the two cases in Florida and Michigan are different, although they have generated similar passions.

On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, Martin was returning from a convenience store where he had bought a package of Skittles and a soft drink. Zimmerman, who is light-skinned and identifies as Latino, saw Martin, left his vehicle and followed him. The prosecution maintained that Zimmerman had profiled Martin because he was black. Zimmerman said he was concerned about a recent spate of robberies in his community.

Florida has a "stand your ground" law, which allows someone who feels threatened to use lethal force rather than flee. The law also calls for a special hearing in self-defense cases to allow a defendant to argue that he acted under the law.

Zimmerman never availed himself of the special hearing, choosing instead to fight the case along traditional self-defense lines. His attorneys argued that the evidence showed Zimmerman scuffled with Martin, who managed to get on top and beat Zimmerman's head into the ground. Zimmerman, fearful, reacted in self-defense, they said.

After a jury in July agreed with the defense and acquitted Zimmerman, civil rights leaders continued to call for the repeal of stand your ground laws. Days after Zimmerman was acquitted, Atty. Gen. Holder added his voice, saying that such laws "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense" and may encourage "violent situations to escalate."

Michigan does not have a "stand your ground" law, although state law does recognize self-defense, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy said Friday when announcing the charges against Wafer. The homeowner was arraigned on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of McBride, plus a weapons charge.

Wafer appeared in Dearborn Heights' 20th District Court before Judge Mark J. Plawecki, where Wafer waived a reading of the charges during his arraignment. The judge set Wafer's bail at 10% of $250,000 and scheduled his next court appearance for Dec. 18.

Wafer's attorney, Mack Carpenter, told the court that his client had worked in maintenance and transportation at the Detroit Metro Airport for 10 years. Old charges of drunk driving are his only criminal history. Carpenter told reporters that he expected Wafer to be exonerated of all charges and cited McBride's condition: A toxicology report released this week showed she had been drinking and may have used marijuana.

According to prosecutors, McBride was driving a white Ford sedan at 12:37 a.m. on Nov. 2 when she hit a parked car. "McBride was observed to have blood on her body and appeared to be disoriented when she left the scene on foot," prosecutors said.

At 4:42 a.m., police received a call about a shooting and went to a home in Dearborn Heights. There they found McBride in the front porch area of Wafer's house. She had been shot in the face after she "knocked on the front screen door of the house. There were no signs of forced entry at the location," prosecutors said.

"Under Michigan law, there is no duty to retreat in your own home," Worthy said. "However, someone who claims self-defense must honestly and reasonably believe that he is in imminent danger of either losing his life or 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."

By that standard, prosecutors decided to charge Wafer. Worthy said race played no role in the decision. "Undoubtedly, there has been enormous interest in this case, but we do not make decisions in our cases based upon public opinion. We go where the facts and evidence lead us," Worthy said.

The Detroit branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People praised the prosecutor for bringing charges but noted that the case was in its early stages.

"The shadow of Trayvon Martin and his untimely and what many believe unnecessary death in the state of Florida continues to haunt many in the African American community," the NAACP said in a statement. "This particular case had the appearance that it might have been headed down the same road."

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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