Michael White

Michael White silently leaves court on Oct. 17 after a jury found him not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the stabbing of real estate developer Sean Schellenger. — Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

A jury has found Michael White, the Black bicycle courier and poet who fatally stabbed a white real estate developer in Rittenhouse Square last year, not guilty of voluntary manslaughter, possession of an instrument of crime or obstruction of justice.

But the jury found White guilty of evidence tampering, which is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

The verdict came after three days of testimony about the stabbing of 37-year-old Sean Schellenger and a day of deliberations.

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Upon hearing the verdict, Linda Schellenger, Schellenger’s mother, walked to the front of the courtroom and said to the judge, “I would like to have District Attorney Larry Krasner arrested for obstruction of justice.”

She then exited the courtroom.

Schellenger has been critical of Krasner throughout the case. The district attorney originally charged White with first-degree murder, which caused an outcry from the Black community. He later down-graded the charge to third-degree murder. And on the Friday before the trial was scheduled to begin, Krasner filed a motion to dismiss the murder charge and replace it with the voluntary manslaughter charge; he argued the prosecution was more likely to win a conviction on that charge.

Standing outside the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice less than 30 minutes after the verdict, Schellenger, who never wanted the charges to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, accused Krasner of “orchestrating this” and said his involvement in the case had been “criminal.”

“Look, I lost my son. My son is dead. My son is dead,” she said. “My feelings for Larry Krasner are, ‘Thank you for the wings beneath my wings, mother f----r, because you are going down and you are going to get arrested.’”

Prosecutors Anthony Voci and Sherrell Dandy did not speak to the media following the verdict.

Krasner, however, released a written statement.

“We followed the facts and the law in seeking justice. And we respect the verdict of the jury in this factually and legally complex case,” Krasner said in the statement.

“I am proud of our Assistant District Attorneys Voci and Dandy, who presented the case skillfully, ethically, and appropriately for what it was: A case about two unique individuals. This Office remains committed to individual justice, which rejects using people as symbols or stereotypes to serve any other agenda.”

Krasner said his “heart goes out” to the family and friends of Sean Schellenger, “whose pain and trauma are evident even today, and to everyone else who has been affected by this tragedy.”

White’s defense attorneys, Kier Bradford-Grey and Jonathan Strange, did not speak to the media.

White was silent as he exited the courthouse after the verdict.

His mother, Juanita, said “thank you” as she left the courthouse and told the press and supporters gathered there that her prayers go out to the Schellenger family.

Community reaction to the ruling

Black community leaders contacted after the jury handed down its verdict said they were pleased with the outcome.

“Excellent, excellent, excellent,” said Elder Melanie DeBouse, pastor of Evangel Chapel in North Philadelphia and board co-chairwoman of interfaith organization POWER.

“I felt that if the roles had been reversed, Mr. Schellenger would have been given a pass, or that the argument would have been that he was defending himself and he certainly would have been given a pass.”

Paula Peeples, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania State Chapter of the National Action Network, agreed.

“Usually, a Black man in that situation — no matter what the truth is — goes to jail,” Peeples said. “But there was nothing premeditated about what happened. I never believed that this was premeditated. Michael White found himself in a bad situation and he wanted to get home. He didn’t want to kill anyone. It’s a tragedy. My heart goes out to the victim’s family. But Michael is not a killer.”

Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said he, too, was pleased with the verdict.

“We were a part of a group of first responders and right from the start I didn’t think that he was doing anything other than protecting himself from danger,” said Muhammad, who attended the first day of the trial and saw the video of the altercation. “My heart goes out to the family of Sean Schellenger, but this whole thing could have been avoided if Mr. Schellenger, who had cocaine in his system and was legally drunk, had just gone home.”

DeBouse and Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church and co-chairman of POWER, both expressed sympathy for the Schellenger family.

“But justice was served,” Tyler said. “He was put in a position where he feared for his life and the only thing he could do in that moment was act in self-defense.”

Background of the case

The confrontation between White and Schellenger happened late in the evening of July 12, 2018.

Schellenger and his friends, William Norris Jordan and Uri Jacobson, were traveling near the intersection of 17th and Chancellor streets in a black Mercedes when they were forced to stop because a gold Ford Taurus carrying two Black deliverymen stopped.

Jordan, the driver of the Mercedes, honked his horn and yelled at the deliverymen, “move, you stupid n-----,” White testified on Tuesday.

“That made me uncomfortable,” White said.

Schellenger then got out of the Mercedes and approached the driver’s side of the Taurus, White said.

White said he told Schellenger, “This is really no reason to act like a tough guy.”

“I said that in hopes that he would stop because he looked like he was really ready to hurt someone,” White testified.

Schellenger, who had alcohol and cocaine in his system, then turned on White. Jordan, Jacobson and other witnesses testified that they could not hear the words Schellenger and White exchanged, but White said Schellenger threatened to “beat the Black off” him.

White pulled a hunting knife with a 7-inch blade from his backpack.

What happened next happened so quickly it was a “blur,” one witness said.

Officials played surveillance video in court, which showed Schellenger charging at White, picking him up and throwing him to the ground.

During the scuffle, White, who was 16 years younger and 50 pounds lighter than Schellenger, raised the knife and brought it down into Schellenger’s back.

“I was trying to get him off me,” White said.

“I wasn’t trying to kill nobody,” he testified. “I was defending myself. I was thinking I could die.”

After Schellenger went down, White pulled the knife from Schellenger’s back, fled the scene, went to his aunt’s house in West Philadelphia, and threw the knife on a rooftop.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that White never should have engaged with Schellenger, but he inserted himself in the traffic dispute because he was looking for a fight. Their argument focused on a note police found in White’s phone that said, in part, “I ain’t even like that. If you piss me off, I’ll cut you.”

But the defense brought witnesses, notably Temple University professor and cable news contributor Marc Lamont Hill, who said White was using the word “cut” figuratively and not literally.

The defense argued White was just reacting in a split second to a threat from an older, larger, intoxicated man.

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