Analysis Violence

What the Blogosphere Got Dangerously Wrong About the Renisha McBride Case

Bridgette Dunlap

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.

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.

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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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