Monday, August 11, 2014

Stand Your Ground: Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and the Law of Self-Defense

Both parties agreed to the facts. On November 2, 2013, at 4:30am in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, Theodore Wafer shot and killed Renisha McBride, an unarmed 19 year-old woman who had been pounding on the front door to his house.  The case was quickly thrust into the public spotlight, spawning coverage from numerous news sources and even its own Wikipedia page.  The ensuing two-week trial ended last Thursday when, after two days of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict, convicting Wafer of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and a felony firearm-related offense.

From the very beginning, the tragic circumstances surrounding Renisha McBride’s death has raised questions and been the focus of many comparisons.  Most notably, Rev. Al Sharpton compared Renisha’s death to that of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman just a year earlier.  However, despite any similarities which can be drawn between the two cases—both victims were black, both shooters were white or of white descent; both victims were unarmed; both victims were shot in perceived self-defense—one large difference remains: Wafer’s defense failed while Zimmerman’s succeeded.

Self-defense today is as variable from state to state as is the title of the prosecuting authority.  Originally a common law concept, self-defense today has been codified in the statutory laws, including those of Michigan and Florida.

Under the Michigan Compiled Laws, the use of deadly force must meet two criteria and fit into one of two prongs.  First, the individual asserting self-defense must not be engaged in the commission of a crime, either simultaneously with or prior to the use of force.  Second, the individual must be with no duty to retreat.  If both of these criteria are satisfied, then the individual must “honestly and reasonably [believe] that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself or herself or to another individual” or must “honestly and reasonably [believe] that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent sexual assault of himself or herself or another individual.”

Similarly, under the Florida Statutes, an individual may use deadly force in self-defense “if he or she reasonably believes that using . . .  such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another person or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”  The Florida law differs, however, when it comes to the duty to retreat.  So long as the individual is acting in accordance with the Florida statute, he or she has the right to stand his or her ground, with no duty to retreat.

Both situations fulfill the bare minimum required to assert self-defense: George Zimmerman was able to stand his ground as Florida law gave him no duty to retreat in the face of an attack which put him in fear of imminent death or great bodily harm while Theodore Wafer could rely on Michigan’s Castle Doctrine to eliminate his duty to retreat inside his own home.  This leaves reasonableness as the determining factor in each case.

Prosecutors in the Renisha McBride case emphasized that Wafer did not call 911, arguing that by shooting through his front door without warning, he had taken the law into his own hands.  His actions killed a young woman believed to be seeking help, one who was lost and confused.  While the defense attempted to argue that Wafer had been terrified that his house was about to be invaded, it is possible that they were unable to surmount the challenges faced when Wafer testified that he feared checking to see who was outside might “’give away’ his position within the house.”  This while he was wielding the very shotgun he had loaded simply because his car had been vandalized with paintballs.

Aside from being charged with a crime which many law professors believe the State could not prove, George Zimmerman’s defense attorneys asserted an argument which focused on the physical altercation and “who was on top.”  Essentially, Zimmerman’s attorneys crafted an argument that went to the heart of reasonableness and whether Zimmerman reasonably feared that Trayvon would imminently cause him great bodily harm or death.  The premise of its argument was that Zimmerman was attacked and fighting a losing battle, and that he had called out for help before shooting.  In this case, Trayvon was made out to be the primary aggressor in a fight that left Zimmerman with head injuries.  A fight that Zimmerman contended made him fear for his life. 

Ultimately, these two cases came down to one of the most contested requirements in a self-defense justified homicide: reasonableness.  Every prosecutor and defense attorney knows that when confronted with a self-defense argument, one must attack or defend the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions.  These two cases should serve as a reminder to all practitioners of criminal law to be mindful of reasonableness and its place within criminal law as a whole, not just in matters of self-defense.

Trevor Addie
Blog Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner


  1. These are intense situation, for sure. One of my friends works in criminal law. The most she's ever had to deal with are DUIs and minor accidents though. It'd be tough to be criminal lawyer handling one of these high profile cases, though. Thiago |

  2. It's important to understand self defense and the laws regarding it. There are definite situations where self defense is necessary. I think it can be a scary thing, but you should protect yourself in a situation like this.
    Gary Puntman |