DETROIT (CNN) — A Michigan man accused of gunning down an unarmed young woman on his front porch took the stand in his own defense Monday. Theodore Wafer, 55, told jurors he feared for his life when loud banging on his front and kitchen doors startled him awake in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013.
Wafer is facing charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter for killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who prosecutors said was on Wafer’s porch in Dearborn Heights seeking help after a car accident.
On the stand, Wafer said he thinks of McBride daily. “This poor girl, she had her whole life in front of her,” he said, wiping his eyes. He could face life in prison if convicted.
McBride had a blood-alcohol level of 0.218 at the time of her death and had smoked marijuana earlier in the evening, according to testimony. Witnesses said she crashed her vehicle into a parked car just before 1 a.m. and wandered off disoriented and bloodied. Some three hours later, she was hit in the face by a fatal shotgun blast on Wafer’s porch.
The incident sparked protest and drew the attention of activist Al Sharpton, likened by some to the shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin in 2012. McBride was African-American. Wafer, who is white, was criminally charged more than two weeks after the killing.
In the Detroit courtroom Monday, Wafer described feeling the floor vibrate under his feet from the violent banging, which moved back and forth between the front and kitchen doors. He said he couldn’t find his cell phone to call 911, but retrieved his Mossberg 12-guage shotgun from a closet and opened the front door at a quiet moment. “I was not going to cower. I didn’t want to be a victim in my own house,” he said.
Wafer claimed he had forgotten the weapon was loaded and hoped only to scare the trespassers. When a figure appeared from around the corner, he said, he pulled the trigger as a “reflex reaction” due to fear: “It was them or me.”
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors called police witnesses who said they found no pry marks, kick marks or damage to the locking mechanisms of the front door. Wayne County Medical Examiner Dr. Kilak Kesha testified he saw no injuries to McBride’s hands during her autopsy that could have been caused by violent pounding.
A defense expert disputed that characterization. Dr. Werner Spitz, who held the medical examiner’s post in Wayne County for 16 years, told jurors he in fact saw injury, swelling and fresh blood in a photograph of McBride’s hand, saying those were not the products of the car wreck hours earlier.
Wafer’s attorneys also called to the stand crime scene reconstructionist David Balash, who testified the screen in Wafer’s front door was already damaged and knocked out of its frame when Wafer fired through it. The distance from the muzzle of Wafer’s weapon to McBride’s face, said Balash, would have been no more than two feet.
Throughout the case, defense attorneys have fought to admit cell phone “selfies” of McBride taken weeks before the incident, that they say point to criminal and aggressive tendencies. The selfies show the teen “flashing hand signals and exhibiting ‘wannabe’ elements of gang culture,” with “piles of marijuana and packaging materials indicating marijuana distribution,” with wads of cash and pointing a handgun at the camera, according to court documents. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Dana Hathaway has not allowed the photographs despite repeated motions by the defense.
Starting her cross examination Monday afternoon, Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Athina Siringas questioned whether Wafer’s tears on the stand were genuine and played a lengthy video of his police interview done within hours of the shooting. “Do you remember ever crying within two to three hours after you shot Renisha McBride?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Wafer.
“You didn’t cry, right?” continued Siringas. “There’s no jury there?”
Her cross examination of Wafer will continue Tuesday morning.