What to Know
- Michael White is on trial Thursday for voluntary manslaughter in the July 2018 killing of Sean Schellenger.
- The college student was working as a delivery driver when he was accused of stabbing the developer near Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square.
- The case has garnered much attention in the Philadelphia area.
Jurors heard a second day of testimony Friday in the case of a 22-year-old delivery man who fatally stabbed a real estate developer near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.
The question jurors must consider is not whether Michael White killed 37-year-old Sean Schellenger, but whether he intended for Schellenger to die and whether White was justified in stabbing the victim after a heated verbal altercation escalated into a bloody fight on the night of July 12, 2018.
White formally pleaded not guilty on Thursday to voluntary manslaughter, plus tampering, obstruction and one weapons charge. White’s prior third-degree murder charge was reduced Monday after his legal team struck a deal with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office last week.
Voluntary manslaughter, which requires prosecutors to prove intent, could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years, at least half the sentence for 3rd degree murder. The added obstruction and tampering counts each carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
White is expected to testify on his own behalf during the trial, according to his lawyers.
On Friday, jurors first heard continued testimony from restauranteur Norris Jordan, Schellenger’s friend and the driver of the car Schellenger rode in the night he died. Jordan previously testified that Schellenger “bull rushed” White but said he didn’t see or hear what led to the altercation. He repeatedly choked back tears as he recalled the “bear hug” Schellenger gave him earlier in the night.
White’s lawyers, Philadelphia Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Gray and Jonathan Strange, cross-examined Jordan on Friday, calling into question how much Schellenger drank before his fight with White. Schellenger had more than double the legal blood alcohol content and tested positive for cocaine, according to Philadelphia Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Victoria Sorokin.
Uri Jacobson, the second passenger in Jordan’s car that night, also testified Friday. He told the court that Schellenger advanced on White before the defendant stabbed him and that both men stood "ready to go."
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”I saw two guys ready to challenge each other,” Jacobson told Strange during cross examination.
The fatal encounter between Schellenger and White unfolded in mere seconds, according to multiple witnesses. White, who surrendered to authorities, never denied stabbing Schellenger. His lawyers are building a case around self-defense, saying the killing was justified because White “was scared for his life,” according to Strange.
At the center of the defense’s case is whether Schellenger provoked White by saying he would “beat the black off him” moments before the fight ensued.
Neither Jordan nor Jacobson said they heard the words exchanged between Schellenger and White. But Philip Birchfield, a security guard at AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar in Destin, Florida, recalled a 2008 encounter with Schellenger that ended with Schellenger biting him so hard that he drew blood and left a small scar.
"He was just going wild ... like a rabid racoon," Birchfield said in court. "He was out of control at the time."
During opening statements Thursday, defense attorney Strange told the 14-person jury that his client acted in self-defense after Schellenger attacked White and issued the racial epithet.
”He never meant to kill Sean,” Strange said.
Prosecutor Anthony Voci, Jr., chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office homicide unit, challenged that idea, saying White chose to carry a deadly weapon and chose to kill the victim over a traffic dispute.
”At that moment, White became a killer,” Voci said. “The only question is if he will become a convicted killer.”
Witness and surveillance video presented in court showed Schellenger pick up White by his waist as the two men scuffled. White fell backwards, causing Schellenger to flip over first onto his back and then land on his stomach. He never stood up.
The video then showed Jordan yell at White: “What are you doing? Get out of here.”
According to the video, White paused before turning to run down Chancellor Street near Rittenhouse Square.
Frame-by-frame replay Thursday and Friday focused on the knife White used on Schellenger. The victim’s mother shut her eyes tight whenever the video was shown.
”Knife out, charge, stab - that’s how fast it happened,” witness Abraham Perlez told jurors Friday.