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Justice (?) for Renisha McBride

Ted Wafer, convicted of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Renisha McBride, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 3. He faces a maximum of life in prison. Many feel that justice has been served; others do not.

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Theodore Paul Wafer, the man responsible for killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride in 2013, is scheduled to be sentenced to prison on September 3. After a 10-day trial, a Wayne County (Michigan) jury convicted the 55-year-old Dearborn Heights homeowner of 2nd degree murder, statutory manslaughter and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in August.

Third Judicial Circuit Judge Dana M. Hathaway, who presided over the case, will more than likely start by sentencing Wafer to a mandatory 2-year term in state prison on the felony weapons charge. Then, Hathaway may sentence Wafer on both the manslaughter and 2nd degree murder charges, or she may drop the manslaughter charge and opt to focus her attention solely on the charge of murder in the 2nd degree.

According to Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Maria Miller, in charge of communications for the prosecutor’s office, both the defense and prosecutors will review a presentencing report and present arguments based on sentencing guidelines in open court on August 25.

Hathaway may sentence Wafer to a term of up to 15 years in state prison for the manslaughter charge and a maximum of life in prison for the murder charge.

McBride, a temporary worker at a Ford Motor Company plant, crashed her car around 1:30 am on November 2, 2013. Witnesses at the scene describe McBride as having blood on the side of her head, being possibly drunk and disoriented, and wandering away from the crash site at least three times.

Around 4:30 am, she turned up at Wafer’s house, knocking and banging on his side and front doors.

Wafer testified in court that the noise was incredibly loud, at times shaking the windows of his home and making the floor vibrate. He stated he thought someone was attempting to break into his home and, fearing for his life, got his weapon – a Mossburg 500 pistol grip, 12-gauge shotgun – to confront the intruder.

Wafer opened his locked front door and through a locked screen door, he shot McBride in the face as she stood on the front porch.

Calling 911 and stating that he had just “shot someone on his porch, banging on his front door,” Wafer told the first officers on the scene that the gun had discharged accidentally and that he did not know it was loaded. He repeated that story during a police interview that same morning, but he also stated in that same interview that he had become angry, was “full of piss and vinegar,” and “did not want to cower” in his own home.

The case had drawn parallels to several racially charged cases within the last year, most notably that of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Wafer is white and McBride is black.

Another similarity in the case was that McBride, the victim, was characterized by Wafer’s defense and conservative-leaning public opinion as a “thug” who caused her own death, similar to the way that Trayvon Martin was portrayed in the trial of Zimmerman. The fact that McBride was a teenage female did not shield her from being labeled by Cheryl Carpenter, Wafer’s defense attorney, as a “drug dealer” and being “up to no good” on the night she was murdered.

In furtherance of her claims that Renisha McBride was a criminal, Carpenter requested to have entered into evidence text messages and photos from McBride’s cellphone, and screen shots of her social media profile, including her screen name. Judge Hathaway ruled against allowing them into evidence. However, Carpenter renewed her request periodically throughout the trial, and conservative-leaning supporters of Wafer dug them up on their own and provided them to readers to “study” Renisha McBride’s personality and “judge for themselves” how “deeply involved” in “the drug and thugging” culture she was . . . and would be . . . had she lived.

Wafer’s conviction for second-degree murder took some observers by surprise. Both the Zimmerman case and another racially-charged case – that of Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis, also in Florida – ended in acquittals on the charge of murder (Dunn was convicted of attempted murder of Davis’ friends, but not of Davis’ murder).

At least one local attorney said he expected the verdict.

“I think it was consistent with the evidence that was presented. I wasn’t surprised,” Jeff Edison told Truthout. A practicing attorney in the state of Michigan for the past 38 years, Edison is also a founding member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Michigan’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which states that a “person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant,” and therefore has “no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be,” was not at issue during the trial.

Rather, Wafer’s attorney argued that his killing of McBride was justified as self-defense under the Castle Doctrine, so-called because a person’s home is their “castle”; there is no duty to retreat when a person is in their own home; and the “individual honestly and reasonably believe[d] that the use of deadly force [was] necessary to prevent” the imminent death [or] great bodily harm of himself.”

According to Edison, the jury saw that there was no evidence that Wafer was in imminent danger, and the question for the jurors probably came down to whether or not Wafer’s “stated belief was honest and reasonable.”

“[McBride] was on his porch, unarmed, and did not pose a danger, and his [Wafer’s] perception of danger was neither honest nor reasonable; clearly, that’s what the jury felt, said Edison.

From a nonlawyer’s viewpoint, Wafer’s conviction for 2nd degree murder was surprising to many because white assailants are so much less likely to receive the death penalty when their victim is Black. Ian Millhiser, writing for Think Progress in March of this year, stated that in the south in particular, whites are less likely to receive the death penalty when their victim is black; only 20 whites have ever been executed for killing a black person since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976; and in Florida, “no white person has ever been executed for killing a black person.”

Many on social media lauded the conviction as justice for Renisha McBride. Ron Scott, a long-time Detroit activist who organized support for McBride’s family, was quoted in the Detroit News as saying that Wafer’s conviction represented “a quest for justice and the rule of law over acrimony and vengeance.”

However, there is also a sense of contradiction in equating justice for Renisha with Wafer’s impending prison sentence. Mariame Kaba, a Chicago-based, anti-violence activist of more than 20 years, summed up those feelings in a tweet on the day the jury’s verdict came back:

1. Still sad #RenishaMcBride is dead.

2. Glad for her family that her killer was found guilty.

3. A prison sentence is not justice.

“For me, justice encompasses transformation and not further reinforcing forms of oppression that come back to harm me as a black person in this country,” Kaba told Truthout. “I don’t believe in caging people . . . my experiences have shown me the complete and utter failure of that kind of a process, which I see as a form of social death . . . I can’t see a prison sentence or prisons in any way at all as justice.”

Prison cages individuals within a structure and system where rehabilitation, redemption and accountability are not priorities. It reinforces the worst possible antisocial behaviors, including the use of violence. Then, it returns individuals to poor, over-policed communities with no marketable skills or coping mechanisms, no resources and no sense of hope.

Such a scenario is damning to both the individuals who have experienced prison and to the communities that they return to.

In the words of Kaba, “I’m not ‘pro’ cementing my own oppression.”

The idea of envisioning a world without prisons has gained significant ground since Angela Davis and other activists began doing work around prison abolition. A key principle in the movement away from prisons and toward a more just world is that of accountability.

Kaba, who cautions that she does not have all the answers, says that in certain ways, the current system delivers accountability. “Trials can be and often are good things for airing the facts of the case,” she told Truthout. “Bringing people to public account, being confronted with the harms they have done is a good thing to do in a public way.”

Kaba noted that the process of bringing Wafer to trial was one such act of accountability. “I am happy for those who worked to bring Ted Wafer to account. I’m glad he was charged; I’m okay with him being arrested and brought to trial. That was a victory in this case; it’s not like he was coming forward to say I did this thing; it was terrible; I need to find a way to apologize to this family; I want to find a way offer some restitution – that wasn’t the posture he took, so clearly, having a trial allowed for the facts to be brought to bear.”

At a press conference following Wafer’s conviction for the murder of his daughter, Walter Simmons said he hopes that Wafer is sentenced to life in prison and that Wafer was “where he belonged.”

Such sentiments are understandable for the parents and other loved ones of murder victims, and that’s not lost at all on Kaba. However, she says, “I think the conversation that we [want] to have in this area is really about punishment. There’s a difference between accountability and punishment; they are not the same thing necessarily.”

Envisioning “justice” solely through the legal punishment system is the dominant view in US society, but restorative and transformative models of justice have emerged as alternate systems that can operate outside the frame of incarceration-based justice. Restorative and transformative justice take many forms, but they generally call for perpetrators of harm to accept responsibility for their actions as well as the harm they have caused to an individual or a community, and to make amends for that harm.

“How do we encourage a country and a world where people are taking responsibility for the harm they have done, not because they are thinking about the punishment they are going to receive, but because they have actually harmed people?” Kaba asks.

Answering these and other questions, and dispelling the notion of prisons as a form of justice, are noble and necessary acts – although they don’t appear to be on the immediate horizon.

“We cannot imagine what could be because we are so [tied up] in this current system, trying to imagine something else,” said Kaba.

But imagine we must.

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