DETROIT (AP) — A judge denied on Friday a request to remove herself from the case of a Detroit-area man who fatally shot an unarmed woman on his porch, a move that triggers a review by the chief criminal judge that will delay the case.
Wayne County Circuit Judge Qiana Lillard rejected the motion filed by Theodore Wafer's attorneys, who argued that her previous employment with the prosecutor's office and associations with employees create an appearance of impropriety. Lillard was a prosecutor for more than eight years before Gov. Rick Snyder appointed her to the bench last August.
Wafer is charged with second-degree murder after shooting Renisha McBride, 19, at his Dearborn Heights home. He said he believed McBride wanted to break in. Prosecutors say Wafer should have kept the door shut and called police instead of shooting. McBride was drunk and in a car crash three hours earlier.
Civil rights groups have suggested race may have played a role in the shooting, but prosecutors haven't presented any evidence to make that connection. Wafer is white; McBride was black.
Lillard is Facebook friends with prosecutors in the Wafer case, defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said, and former co-workers are on her campaign committee for the fall election. Lillard and prosecutors corrected the last point, noting that no prosecuting attorneys on the case are on the campaign committee but that one, Terry Anderson, was part of a host committee for a fundraiser she held in February.
"This court doesn't have any personal acquaintances ... that would preclude it from being fair and impartial in this case or any other matter that might come before it," Lillard said.
Two prosecuting attorneys, Anderson and Patrick Muscat, have donated $100 or less to Lillard's campaign, though Lillard and prosecutors also cited a Michigan Supreme Court case that says a lawful contribution to a judicial campaign can't be the basis for a judge's disqualification.
Carpenter stressed in court and in her motion that she alleges no actual bias or improper conduct, but an appearance of it that could deny her client due process.
"The risk that Judge Lillard would subconsciously use personal and/or political relationships with the prosecution to Mr. Wafer's detriment is simply too great here," Carpenter wrote.
Judge Timothy Kenny, who presides over the court's criminal division and is now handling the request, said "subconscious interpretations of other people's behavior don't go very far with me," adding "I'm not going to play a sidewalk Sigmund Freud." Still, he questioned whether it was appropriate for a prosecuting attorney on the case to be serving on a committee that's raising money for the judge presiding over it.
Kenny said he will make his decision on April 25, and other matters and motions will be put on hold until the issue of recusal is resolved. The trial is scheduled to start June 2, though that could be delayed.