What the Blogosphere Got Dangerously Wrong About the Renisha McBride Case

On November 2, Renisha McBride, an unarmed Black 19-year-old, was shot and killed on the porch of a white Dearborn Heights, Michigan, resident, Theodore Wafer. According to reports, McBride had arrived at Wafer’s residence after crashing her car in the early morning hours.

We should be outraged about McBride’s death, and many people have been, channeling their anger into blog posts and online petitions. But many of the people who have commented on the story with their hearts in the right place have gotten two key facts of the case wrong—and those misrepresented facts could have dangerous consequences.

Exaggerating What “Stand Your Ground” Laws Do Makes Everyone Less Safe

The misunderstanding of what “stand your ground” laws do is harmful. The right to self-defense allows a person to use deadly force if she reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent an imminent use of deadly force by an aggressor—but she has a duty to retreat rather than use force if it is safe to do so in most states. What “stand your ground” laws do is remove the duty to retreat when attacked. That’s it. They do not give you a right to attack when you are not in imminent danger.

Contrary to popular misunderstanding of the Trayvon Martin case, “stand your ground” (SYG) does not authorize a person to stalk and shoot someone perceived as a threat. Though police attributed their initial failure to arrest George Zimmerman to SYG, and there was language about the right to stand one’s ground in the jury instructions, Zimmerman did not use a SYG defense. He claimed Trayvon Martin attacked him and he had no option to retreat. Regardless of how unlikely Zimmerman’s version of what happened may seem, it was a traditional self-defense argument, not SYG.

All SYG does is allow fighting back instead of fleeing when a person reasonably believes someone is going to seriously harm them. Specifically, in Michigan one must fear “imminent death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault.” “Stand your ground” absolutely does not give anyone the right to “create a confrontation” when you are not in imminent danger.

It is imperative that feminist and progressive commentators stop saying it does—so more people don’t get shot. “Stand your ground” is terrible law, born out of slavery and frontier cultures in the United States, but exaggerating how bad the law is in the states that have SYG laws, even with the good intention of galvanizing support for their repeal, wrongly tells people they can shoot first and ask questions later under existing law.

In the McBride case, the law that would apply is technically not Michigan’s SYG but the state’s “Castle law,” which authorizes the use of force without any duty to retreat at one’s home. (Not having to retreat in one’s home has long been the standard; almost all states have Castle laws.) However, the Castle law will also be to no avail if Wafer did not have a reasonable fear of imminent death, severe bodily injury, or sexual assault. The facts are unclear and may never be known, but it is hard to imagine any jury would believe that a 5’4” woman knocking on a locked door would cause a reasonable fear of imminent death. So it was unreasonable to suggest SYG would apply to those facts.

The Nation has claimed that “due to similar Stand Your Ground laws in Michigan as in Florida, it’s possible [McBride’s killer] may never be charged with any crime.” Actually, we should have expected the shooter would be charged. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of SYG laws generally, and Michigan’s specifically. Florida’s SYG law immunizes a killer from prosecution. But it doesn’t mean the accused shouldn’t be charged at all (despite the delay in arresting Zimmerman). The Florida law grants a right to an immunity hearing before being tried (which Zimmerman did not request). In Michigan, the SYG law only provides a defense the defendant can raise when prosecuted. So even if SYG were relevant here, it would not be the reason prosecutor Kym Worthy didn’t immediately charge Wafer.

To be clear, “stand your ground” is relevant here to the extent that it has exacerbated the general gun-carrying culture in the United States and altered the public understanding of self-defense. Multiple studies have shown that states that pass SYG laws experience significant increases in homicide. They do not see significant increases in justifiable homicides. This suggests that the problem is what people think SYG does more than what it actually does, which is provide a defense to homicide. It seems highly unlikely that the 7 to 9 percent increase in homicides that comes with SYG is attributable to people who faced a legitimate threat from which they could have retreated but instead chose to use deadly force. It is coming from people who wrongly believe they can shoot whenever they feel threatened.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy Should Have Been Trusted to Do Her Job

To all the well-meaning commentators and petition-signers who “demanded” McBride’s killer be investigated and charged immediately, I humbly suggest the implication that Worthy needed to be told to do her job, or do it faster, is offensive. Worthy is a capable prosecutor, and a woman of color who we had no reason to believe would be indifferent to the death of a Black teenage girl. In fact, I don’t know how she could possibly take on the job of prosecutor in what has been called the most violent city in the United States—responsible for 52 percent of Michigan’s felony prosecutions—if she wasn’t deeply committed to justice for crime victims. Rather than bombarding the attorney general’s office with complaints about the handling of her case, we might have heeded the example of the McBride family and given Worthy time to build the case the best she could. As the McBride family’s lawyer noted, charges are not the goal—a conviction is.

We might also have considered the conditions under which Worthy is working. She sued Wayne County earlier this year after her office received $8.5 million less than she was promised and she had to layoff 22 attorneys and three investigators. The case settled, but her office remains severely understaffed. On Wednesday, while people on Twitter were encouraging each other to call her office, Worthy was reporting to Wayne County Commissioners that she has 150 rape cases that need to go to court and too few lawyers to bring them. Bombarding the office of a prosecutor so understaffed she had to sue the county with phone calls and petitions is not the sort of thing that helps her homicide investigation.

McBride’s death was a tragedy, and we should argue for the repeal of “stand your ground” laws. But, sometimes, public perception of the law matters more than what the law is. We have to be careful about jumping to place blame on prosecutors and police, lest we obscure other problems. And we have to be accurate in invoking “stand your ground,” so as not to make it more dangerous than it already is.

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  • gardensheila

    Thank you for all the clarifications in this article. You are so right–these are critically important things to know before we spread misinformation. Thank you also for your defense of a good prosecutor.

  • Arekushieru

    Umm, not sure if I agree with this…. Prosecutor Kym Worthy seems to be in a slightly more advantageous position than most of the people she would represent. Secondly, if someone is not charged, then they can be released. I can just imagine the frustration and fear in people who imagine this happening, again, to one of their OWN family members. Lastly, I don’t think Stand Your Ground laws should be repealed just because they are misunderstood. That would be like saying the right to bodily autonomy should be repealed just because they are misunderstood. They DO both operate on the same principle, after all. Thanks.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      Worthy represents the state, but she is indeed in a better position than most of the people she prosecutes. It does follow, however, that her willingness or ability to do her job should have been doubted. To your second point, we do not need to imagine how the McBride family feels because they have spoken for themselves. They said they weren’t in a rush for charges, as I noted, and they have since thanked the prosecutor’s office for their thorough work. Finally, I said SYG should be repealed because it is bad law not because it is misunderstood, the misunderstanding just makes it more deadly.

  • Not_Surfing_Today

    So, Bridgette – Why do you refuse to post my comment?
    Because I disagree with your assessment of the law in this matter?
    I’ll try again. Thank you.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      I have no control over the comments. :)

  • Not_Surfing_Today

    You write: “…the Castle law will also be to no avail if Wafer did not have a REASONABLE FEAR of imminent death, severe bodily injury, or sexual assault. The facts are unclear and may never be known, but it is hard to imagine any jury would believe that a 5’4” woman KNOCKING ON A LOCKED DOOR would cause a reasonable fear of IMMINENT DEATH death….”

    According to WAFER, the VERY VERY DRUNK and ACCIDENT-STUPORED McBride was NOT just calmly knocking on WAFER’s door like LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD delivering cookies to Grandma. She was pounding on the DOOR and SCREAMING!

    I took note that you OMITTED the two necessary conditions qualifying PRESUMPTIVE SELF-DEFENSE as stated in the MICHIGAN STATUTE:
    (a) that McBRIDE was “…in the process of breaking and entering a dwelling….”
    (b) that WAFER honestly and reasonably believed that McBRIDE was engaging in conduct described in…” (a) above.

    Even as a “man of color” (which I am) I would probably be scared out of my socks if anyone – black, white, brown, yellow, red, blue – was pounding on my front door – let alone a VERY DRUNK, BLACK person screaming gosh-knows-what.

    Whether it be the CASTLE LAW or STAND YOUR GROUND, for sure, I would have brought my GUN with me!

    And that McBRIDE was black would have absolutely exacerbated my FEAR. I doubt whether I would have necessarily discerned McBRIDE was female or whether “accomplices” were tagging along.

    Indeed, JESSE JACKSON expresses the same FEAR of BLACKS. He said:

    “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the streets and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

    In short, BRIDGETTE, you short-changed yourself & us on the facts (the Statute) and prejudiced your article with your own obvious bias. I close with your last two sentences, modified:

    [YOU] have to be careful about jumping to place blame on [THE DEFENDANT], lest [YOU] obscure other problems. And [YOU] have to be accurate [& OFFER THE WHOLE OF FACTS, TRUTH & THE LAW] in invoking Stand Your Ground, so as not to make it more dangerous than it already is.

    • Not_Surfing_Today

      Bridgette…FINALLY! Posted! Thank you.

      • Bridgette Dunlap

        The issue might have been the link in your original comment got you stuck in moderation. Happened to me on another post.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      Hi, your point is well-taken that Wafer should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Also, you are correct that if there is some evidence that McBride was trying to get in the house the Castle law would apply. My piece is a response to the legal claims of liberal commentators about the alleged facts of Renisha simply knocking on the door to ask for help and getting shot. I object to their statements that SYG or the Castle doctrine would apply if she was just knocking. My problem is commentators saying SYG is much worse than it is as a matter of law and I was responding to their version of the facts.

      We do not know what happened, but I think some version of your facts is possible. Renisha might have been banging or trying to get into the house because she thought it was her own home or a friend’s house (there are similar cases). We may learn that it was too dark out to tell Renisha was black (the McBride family’s lawyer has suggested this might be the case and Worthy says she doesn’t have any information yet to suggest this was racially motivated). But she shouldn’t have been shot in any event. It would be different if there was any evidence of a break in, which Worthy says there was not. I don’t think the Castle law defense should fly on those facts, but Wafer can certainly make the argument. He might even succeed because beyond a reasonable doubt is a very high standard to meet (the inherent limitations of the criminal law is why I am a big proponent of civil lawsuits). I think Wafer probably got scared and freaked out and pulled the trigger without really meaning to and without knowing who was on the porch. If something like that happened, it might make sense for him to plead guilty to manslaughter.

      • Not_Surfing_Today

        I appreciate the response & your reasoning. Thank you!

    • Patty MacDonell

      I have been following this closely and never saw anything about Ted Wafer saying that. It might be that Google isn’t providing me with those articles. Where did you see that?

  • QuickStriker

    You’re making statements about the letter of the law, but the letter doesn’t matter. What matters is how the public views it. And the public views SYG as a right to shoot first and ask questions later. Why would the views of the public matter? They’re the ones who sit on juries. Jurors don’t know, or frankly care, about the law.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      The idea is that writing accurately about the law would change how the public views it.

    • Joe.02

      This is an overly cynical view of the general public — the public has biases and so forth, but repeatedly, they are not quite as lawless as all that.

      • QuickStriker

        It’s justified by the public’s actions. The Zimmerman trial is a perfect example. The jurors felt they had to acquit because of SYG even though it wasn’t even presented as an issue at trial.

        • Joe.02

          They cared about the law. As to not understanding, yes, at times juries are confused (I’m inclined to add “and judges,”) but the letter of the law still would matter — it would just make it that much more important for people like Ms. Dunlap to clarify it.

          As to the SYG, it was mentioned in the jury instructions & how much it specifically factored in their judgment is unclear. The jurors there very likely made the right decision — many horrified at what happened suggested as much. Finally, even if they wrongly acquitted because of SYG, it is not clear they viewed it the simplistic way you alleged.

  • S.I. Rosenbaum

    I think you’re wrong about SYG *as practiced.* The Tampa Bay Times had done some wonderful reporting about how the law is used in FL, and it is often used to attempt to justify killings where the killer acted aggressively rather than defensively.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      You are correct that it is frequently used to *attempt* to justify killings. And, as a Florida attorney explained to the Tampa Bay Times, the more publicity the law gets the more those attempts will be successful. (Also, the Florida law is extra terrible because (1) the SYG defense only needs to be proved by a preponderance of the evidence for immunity to prosecution and (2) courts have splits over whether it applies when the aggressor/victim was retreating.)

      What I’m saying is SYG *as practiced* and perceived is even worse than the law on the books. We need to push back when it is inappropriately invoked, because the major problem with SYG is that it emboldens people to shoot because they think the law gives them even more right to use force than it actually does.

  • Bridgette Dunlap

    The reports that she was shot in the back of the head and that her body was moved were wrong. The autopsy showed she was shot in the face.

  • kimmilynn

    I haven’t heard any evidence to support anything other than her level of intoxication (which by all means would support the theory that she was disoriented and confused, as was stated on the 911 call from a witness to the car accident).

    BAL .20%: You feel confused, dazed, or otherwise disoriented. You need help to stand up or walk. If you hurt yourself at this point, you probably won’t realize it because you won’t feel pain. At this point you may experience nausea and/or start vomiting (keep in mind that for some people, a lower blood alcohol level than .20% may cause vomiting). Your gag reflex is impaired, so you could choke if you do throw up. Since blackouts are likely at this level, you may not remember any of this.

    And let’s not forget the police have already stated the shooter claims his gun “accidentally discharged” which makes this a negligent homicide case, not a self defense case.

  • kimmilynn

    If Wafer in fact had a reasonable fear of death, why did he open both of his doors to her?

    According to the police, there were no gun shots through either his security or storm door which indicates he opened them both to her.

  • Joe.02

    The “slavery and frontier cultures” link discussing the “expressive” nature of these laws reaffirm that this discussion does not negate the concerns of some here that these laws further behavior that go beyond the mere words of the statute. So, the careful discussion of the legal questions does not ignore that aspect of things. Overall, this essay is quite appreciated.

  • Smith_90125

    “What Stand Your Ground laws do is remove the duty to retreat when attacked. That’s it. They do not give you a right to attack when you are not in imminent danger.”

    Maybe you’re right about that, but that isn’t the way idiots like Zimmerman are going to perceive it. Those who want to commit violence now see it as license to do so.

    Legal self-defence was always enough, and “stand your ground” only muddies the waters (re: Marissa Alexander). In the case of Jorge Saavedra, it should never have been mentioned.

  • Bridgette Dunlap

    How has SYG saved any life? To repeat, before SYG we already had the right to self-defense. All SYG does is say even if you have the opportunity to safely retreat, you can go ahead and use force anyway. That authorizes a loss of life in cases where someone could have just retreated.