9:55 am
Mon November 18, 2013

Renisha McBride Shooting: 'We May Never Know' Why

Originally published on Mon November 18, 2013 12:38 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, when actor Hill Harper got a letter from a young man in prison, he wrote him back thinking that would be the end of it, but it wasn't - not by a long shot. Their correspondence lasted years and it's now the basis of Hill Harper's latest book "Letters to an Incarcerated Brother." And he'll tell us about it in just a few minutes.

First, though, we want to take a closer look at another controversial case that you'll probably be hearing more about. It's about the shooting of a young woman named Renisha McBride. She was 19 years old. She's African-American and she was shot to death in the early morning hours of November 2 by a 54-year-old white man named Theodore Wafer. She'd knocked on his door after getting into a car accident and was apparently seeking help. Theodore Wafer, who shot McBride in the face by the way, has now been charged with second-degree murder in the case. He's apparently told investigators that he was afraid for his safety, and that he had not intended to fire his 12 gauge shotgun. As you might imagine, the case revives many of the debates about race and self-defense that were raised during the trial of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. But there are other layers to this case as well, including questions of gender. In fact, would a similarly situated white female have received the same reaction? And alcohol since it turns out that Renisha McBride was highly intoxicated at the time of the shooting.

We wanted to talk about all this so we've called Paul Butler. He's a professor at Georgetown University's law school. He's a former federal prosecutor. Also with us is Rochelle Riley. She's an award-winning columnist for the Detroit Free Press. And Joshua Correll is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And he has studied some of these issues including what we call the psychology of fear. And they're all with us now. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PAUL BUTLER: It's great to be here, Michel.


MARTIN: So let me start with Paul Butler because, as a former federal prosecutor, I just want you to tell us of the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges that prosecutor Kym Worthy has brought - what does that suggest about the prosecutor's theory of the case?

BUTLER: It means either that she has really good evidence because second-degree murder requires malice. That's hate or ill will towards Renisha. Many people will remember that was a difficult thing for the government to prove in the Trayvon Martin - George Zimmerman trial. And, of course, they ended up not proving it according to the jury. He's also charged with manslaughter. That's just an intentional killing. So he's got two defenses. One is self-defense. And the other is that the gun discharged accidentally.

MARTIN: You said manslaughter is unintentional?

BUTLER: No, manslaughter is - he still has to - it still has to prove intent. So if the jury is persuaded that the gun really did discharge accidentally, that would be a defense to manslaughter as well as murder.

MARTIN: And do you mind if we ask, since, again in this case, one of the things that raises analogies to the Trayvon Martin case is the fact that the victim - the deceased was tox screened and apparently the shooter was not tox screened. So we know that she did have a high level of alcohol in her system at the time of her death. Is that relevant?

BUTLER: Well, you know, there's always concern about putting the victim on trial. So it's Mr. Wafer who's charged with the crime. The victim's own family is saying that she was drunk and that she may have been loud or boisterous. So that may go to the jury's determination of whether it was reasonable for Mr. Wafer to fear imminent threats to his safety.

MARTIN: So, Professor Correll, we've called you because you actually study the psychology of fear in these types of cases. And you've also studied the question of how racial attitudes feed into the fear. So I wanted to ask about - first of all, what were your first reactions when you heard about this case? And what kinds of questions would you want us to be thinking about as we think about this case?

JOSHUA CORRELL: Honestly, my first reaction was - I mean, I think everybody's first reaction is sorrow. It's a tragedy. But I've been studying this since 1999 when Amadou Diallo was shot in New York City. And I guess my second reaction was that I'm kind of tired - I'm tired of these cases. Every few years, we see another version of this, whether it's Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride or Timothy Thomas back in Cincinnati, Omar Edwards or Amadou Diallo in '99. It keeps happening, usually young black men being shot by, usually, police officers, but, in the latest two cases, by private citizens. It's just a little disheartening.

MARTIN: Well, you said - your thesis was "Context, Race and Danger: The relationship between threat perception and the decision to shoot." Does race play a role in the perception of threat?

CORRELL: Yeah, so my research really focuses on the role of race in engendering a sense of threat - making people feel scared if they're presented with a target who is black rather than white - does that trigger a sense of threat? And the overwhelming conclusion of our work is that yes, it does. It triggers a sense of threat and that can prompt people to respond in a more hostile fashion. We have a very simple videogame to look at this - asking participants to make shoot-don't shoot decisions when they see black and white targets appear on a screen. And they are much more likely to shoot a black target than a white target.

MARTIN: Did you run the same test with women?

CORRELL: We've run that test with thousands of people at this point. We've run it with white, black, Latino, Asian participants, male, female, young, old. We've run it with just tremendous numbers of people over the last 10 years.

MARTIN: Does the threat perception remain if it's a black female as opposed to a white female? Do people have the same - does race play a similar role in their perceptions of women in your research?

CORRELL: Yes. In our research, what we find is that when the target is a female, a black female is perceived as more threatening than a white female. But gender is also kind of a moderating influence. People are less likely to see a female target as a threat compared to a male target. But within the female set of targets, race still seems to exert an influence.

MARTIN: Rochelle, could you just give us your thoughts about this. I know we turn to you often just for your - if you don't mind my putting it this way - kind of the state of mind of people in Detroit as they respond to, you know, various events. What's - first I want to ask what's your response to this? And then I want to hear more broadly about how people in Detroit are talking about this case over the last couple of weeks since it's been in the news.

RILEY: Well, I think the greatest difference between what happened in Florida and what's happening here in Wayne County Michigan is the prosecutor Kym Worthy, who has been handling this case very differently than the way Angela Corey did down in Florida. She has made this very clear that this is a case about human life. And right now, it's not about race because for that for hours and five minutes between the time that Renisha McBride ran into a parked car and a 911 call from Theodore Wafer's house that he had shot her, we may never know all of what happened.

But whatever happened, this prosecutor feels like she did nothing to deserve being shot to death, not at so close range through a closed, locked screen door. So if we can focus on that justice peace, that's one part of the case and that is where people are right now. They want justice for this young lady. There have been some demonstrations. There are people who are very upset. But one of the most important things that's been said thus far is her father, last Friday, said, I believe that this man took my daughter's life for no reason at all from just one human being to another, and we want justice done. So as long as we can focus on the fact that we don't know more than we know, and what we know is that someone did something that they're going to have to prove was reasonable.

BUTLER: Michel, you know, I just get...

RILEY: It's not a Trayvon Martin case yet.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Paul.

BUTLER: A red flag goes up when I hear a prosecutor say a case isn't about race when it seems to be all about race. It's hard to believe that a white woman in Renisha's situation would have received the same reaction, that is being shot through the head. So should the prosecutor acknowledge that race plays a role? I think she's got to in order to win this case. You know, because...

RILEY: I actually disagree with you. I think that what she's doing...

MARTIN: Let Paul finish his thought and then I want to hear...

RILEY: Oh, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: ...Your perspective, Rochelle.

RILEY: Sure.

MARTIN: Why should he, Paul? I mean...

BUTLER: Well, 'cause the concern is that a predominately...

MARTIN: Why should she rather? The prosecutor's a woman, Kym Worthy is. Why should she raise race here?

BUTLER: Because the concern is that a predominately white jury could believe that the shooting was reasonable, and so she's got to counter that concern by putting it on the table.

MARTIN: Rochelle Riley.

RILEY: What she has made very clear is that she's trying this case on the facts. And right now, there's nothing factual that is in the case thus far that says he shot her because she was black. What he did was shot a human being in the dark without caring who it was, and that is actionable. That is something that you can deal with a jury on. It's a 19-year-old kid standing at your door regardless of what color they are. What she has to do is determine that race is involved rather than invoke it just because people feel it.

MARTIN: Has it been determined, in fact - as a matter of fact that - and obviously, in a jury trial, the jury is the determiner of the fact so the jury will decide what is a fact as the case goes forward. But do we know from whatever information is available that, in fact, she was, in fact, shot through a locked door? And if that's the case, why did Mr. Wafer say that he shot her through a locked door? And why didn't he call the police, initially, if he felt himself to be afraid? Do we know?

RILEY: According to his statement to police, it was an accident. That he didn't mean to fire the gun. What the prosecutor claims is if you go to your front door with a gun, you intend to use it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the shooting death of a young woman named Renisha McBride. She was shot in the early morning hours of November 2 in Dearborn, Michigan after having been in a car accident. She apparently knocked on the door of a homeowner named Theodore Wafer seeking help, apparently. And she lost her life. Our guests are Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Joshua Correll who's a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler. So, Professor Correll, do we know whether - this whole question of whether it's normal to feel fear when confronted with an African-American person.

Do you happen to know whether that has actually been invoked as a defense in a case like this, whether people would say, well, it's reasonable for me? We know that colloquially, for example, George Zimmerman's brother made some very controversial, and to many people, offensive comments during the course of the trial where suggested - where he raised the analogy between what happened with his brother and another case where a young man, you know, shot a child in an attempted robbery of the child and his mother. And he said - and he drew the analogy that, well, of course that's why my brother was afraid. Now a lot of people were offended by that. And he later more or less, you know, apologized. But do you happen to know, Professor, whether that point of view has ever been invoked as a defense?

CORRELL: I don't. I mean, maybe Paul can speak to that. It is a problematic statement for many reasons, but I don't know if anybody has ever tried that as a defense.

MARTIN: Paul, what about that?

BUTLER: Yeah, so sometimes judges will allow defendants to make arguments that it was more reasonable to perceive a threat from someone based on things about them, including that they're African-American. You know, this was an issue in the famous Goetz case in New York many years ago. We also have to think, Michel, about these images of black women in the media. And I hate to call out reality shows, but, you know, there are these images of women - African-American women as being loud, boisterous, you know, provoked to fight. And you have to ask whether that plays a role in this guy's perception of this 19-year-old girl.

MARTIN: You know, there was another incident that raises questions about - that I think people have talked about the Trayvon Martin case, but for other people in other parts of the country in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, there was a story about a woman named Glenda Moore, an American woman. She was not young. In this case, she was 39-years-old. But she was - her car, apparently, had been overtaken by floodwaters and she had her two young children with her. And, apparently, she went from door to door banging on doors, asking people to call 911, to get help for her or to let her in with her two children. And she was refused. In fact, people even turned their porch lights off.

No one called for help and her two children died as a result of this. And this was a very, you know, traumatic incident in a series of a number of very traumatic incidents around that hurricane. And I just wonder maybe, Professor Correll, you want to - do you want to take this question on? I mean, this is a situation that's a little bit beyond the scope of your research. No one was shooting anyone in this case. But have you observed other incidents like this where someone's own sense of fear was not perceived to be real or their danger was not perceived to be real? Does race play a role in our perception of someone else being under threat? If that makes sense.

CORRELL: Yeah I don't - that's a pretty tricky question. I don't know if that's the case. But I think it is the case that when - if people have a response to say a black target - a black suspect - somebody that they have a question about that leads them to worry about their own safety, it's not the kind of thing that makes it easy to think about that person's state of mind, right. If you're scared, if you're in a state of panic, if you're worried about your own safety, that not - that makes it tricky.

That makes it hard to take perspective - to take somebody else's perspective. There's some really stunning stories from, you know, usually from police officers about the state of mind that goes into those life-and-death situations. It's not normal psychology. People freak out. The way we think that the brain - all the things that we study in the laboratory are kind of normal psychological functioning. That is not what's happening when people are in that state of panic. So it's really hard to make concrete determinations about what might be going through their minds.

MARTIN: Rochelle, in the couple of minutes that we have left, are authorities talking about this, I mean, apart from the prosecutor? Are civic leaders talking about this case and what are they saying? And as a columnist, what are you saying? I know that there are - a couple of your colleagues have urged people to not rush to judgment in this matter, which of course, is entirely, you know, appropriate. You know, people are innocent until proven guilty...

RILEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...In a court of law and so forth. But what are civic leaders saying and what are you saying - what are you hoping people will think about?

RILEY: Well, I'm working on my piece now that will appear at some point really soon. And I'd have to ask Paul to forgive my fervor earlier. But the case that you described with the mother and her two children where people can see something else besides a mother and children is an easier case to look at. In this instance, if you invoke race too soon or if you make this about race because of the color of the two people rather than what we know, and you go to trial with that and you find out, well, the porch was dark. There was no way to determine her race, therefore, it's not a hate crime. Therefore, it was an accident. You want to really be careful to make sure that the case is about what it is.

But I can tell you one thing, that it is going to continue to cause us to have very important conversations about everything from stand your ground laws to judgments like the one that the professor is working with on what people see. You know, if I walk down the street and I see someone who's dressed and has created a persona for himself as a skinhead. I'm not look at him in the same way that I would look at someone who, you know, is dressed like Beaver Cleaver. I think that there are real issues in how we see each other. What we have to determine is how we react to what we see and not to react too quickly.

MARTIN: Paul, any final thought from you very briefly?

BUTLER: Sure. Lawyers win cases based on strategies about how the real world works. And I'm sorry. It's just really hard for me to believe that if a 19-year-old girl who'd been in an accident and showed up at Mr. Wafer's house late one night, that she'd be shot dead in the head. So I think race is here and I think the prosecution and the defense have to acknowledge that to effectively try this case.

MARTIN: Paul Butler's a professor at Georgetown University's law school. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Joshua Correll is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He joined us from member station KGNU in Boulder. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure.

CORRELL: Thank you.

RILEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.