The man accused of fatally stabbing a real estate developer near Rittenhouse Square last year will be tried for voluntary manslaughter instead of third-degree murder after a judge on Monday approved a request by District Attorney Larry Krasner to downgrade charges.
Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson ruled that Krasner’s office had provided enough reasoning in a motion filed Friday to justify its decision to drop the murder charge. Prosecutors wrote that seeking to convict Michael White of manslaughter instead of murder in the killing of Sean Schellenger was “the most likely way to secure a just conviction.”
Bronson’s ruling marked the opening of White’s trial, which is expected to last until at least next week. Jury selection began Monday morning, and lawyers were expected to give opening remarks to jurors on Thursday.
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Several of Schellenger’s supporters sighed at Bronson’s ruling and then temporarily left the courtroom. They did not comment afterward. Bronson told those in the audience that relatives, friends, and lawyers, should not speak to the media during the trial.
On Friday, Schellenger’s mother, Linda, criticized Krasner’s desire to reduce the charges, saying the jury should be allowed to decide the fate of White, who before Monday had been charged with both third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
White, who sat next to his lawyers, including Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, did not visibly react to the ruling.
The decision marks the second time that Krasner’s office has modified the charges against White, 22, who is accused of stabbing Schellenger in the back during an argument July 12, 2018, at 17th and Chancellor Streets.
Authorities have said that the two men did not know each other, but that White — who was working as a food courier — got into a confrontation with Schellenger, pulled out a knife, and stabbed him in the back as Schellenger, who had been at a nearby restaurant with friends, tried to tackle White.
In August 2018, a few weeks after White turned himself in, Krasner’s office withdrew a charge of first-degree murder, allowing White to be released on bail until trial. Krasner said at the time that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to show that White intended to kill Schellenger during their fight, the key element that distinguishes first-degree murder from other murder counts.
On Friday, Krasner wrote in his motion that he believed that a jury could accept that White stabbed Schellenger “under a sudden or intense passion from serious provocation or acting in unreasonable self-defense” and could find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but that those elements would be a legal defense to third-degree murder.
“The district attorney’s strategic and policy-based decision is that the most likely way to secure a just conviction for this killing is to proceed to trial with a lead charge of voluntary manslaughter,” Krasner wrote.
Voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison. The maximum sentence for third-degree murder is 20 to 40 years.
Bronson also allowed Krasner’s office to introduce new charges related to tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice. Assistant District Attorney Anthony Voci said in court Monday that those counts relate to White’s allegedly tossing the murder weapon onto a rooftop in West Philadelphia after the killing, and hindering detectives’ ability to access his cell phone during their investigation.
Voci and White’s defense lawyers said they had agreed to try those counts in return for prosecutors dropping the murder charge.