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Jury finds Michael White not guilty in stabbing death of Sean Schellenger near Rittenhouse Square

The panel of eight women and four men deliberated for about eight hours before announcing the verdict. The jurors voted to convict White of tampering with evidence, but cleared him of all other charges.

Michael White leaves the Stout Center for Criminal Justice after he was found not guilty in the stabbing death of Sean Schellenger.
Michael White leaves the Stout Center for Criminal Justice after he was found not guilty in the stabbing death of Sean Schellenger.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia jury on Thursday found Michael White not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of real estate developer Sean Schellenger during a scuffle near Rittenhouse Square last year, a case that attracted widespread attention for seeming to exemplify the city’s long-standing tensions over race and class.

The panel of eight women and four men deliberated for about eight hours over two days before announcing the verdict. The jurors voted to convict White, 22, of tampering with evidence but cleared him of obstruction and possessing an instrument of crime.

After the jury left the courtroom, Schellenger’s mother stood up and told Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson that she wanted District Attorney Larry Krasner arrested for obstruction of justice. Krasner had twice downgraded the charges against White before trial.

Linda Schellenger said Krasner has “blood on his hands” for how he handled the prosecution of White. She also sarcastically told White’s supporters they should be proud of White for his actions, then left the courtroom after the judge ordered her removed.

White’s supporters did not visibly react in the courtroom. His mother, Juanita, told reporters afterward, “I’m thankful. I’m happy,” but declined to comment further.

Michael White said nothing as he left the Stout Center for Criminal Justice alongside his lawyers, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey and Jonathan Strange. They also declined to comment.

Anthony Voci, chief of the Homicide Unit in the DA’s Office and one of two prosecutors on the case, said he was disappointed by the verdict. He called Sean Schellenger, 37, an “extraordinary human being” and said his death was “a tragedy of immeasurable proportion.”

Voci declined to comment on Linda Schellenger’s remarks, saying only that he understood she was upset “because a very bright star has been extinguished.”

More than most cases, White’s trial seemed to touch on issues that have long affected the city, such as money, race, and opportunity.

White, a black man who had performed slam poetry and was working as a food courier on the night of the confrontation, testified that Schellenger — the white owner of a real estate company — said, “I’ll beat the black off you” before charging at him and trying to tackle him, causing him to fear for his safety.

Bradford-Grey, during her closing arguments Wednesday, did not shy away from the explosive themes of the case. In addition to telling jurors that White had acted in self-defense, she said: “This case has many undertones, and race is one of them.”

That infuriated some of Schellenger’s supporters.

Mark Schellenger, the victim’s father, told reporters after the verdict that his son “wasn’t perfect, but he was no racist, and to have him smeared like that just to save the murderer, that’s despicable.”

No one else who took the witness stand during the three days of testimony reported hearing Schellenger utter a racial comment. And one of Schellenger’s friends on the scene that night — whom White also accused of using a racial epithet before the stabbing — vehemently denied using such language.

Krasner, in an email statement released by his office after the verdict, said he respected the jury’s decision, adding that his “heart goes out to family and friends of Sean Schellenger, whose pain and trauma are evident even today.”

Krasner said that prosecutors Voci and Sherrell Dandy had “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.”

White and Schellenger did not know each other before their chance encounter July 12, 2018, but came face-to-face just before 11 p.m. during a traffic dispute at 17th and Chancellor Streets.

White was delivering Popeye’s chicken for Uber Eats on his bicycle; Schellenger had been with friends at the nearby restaurant Rouge when they left to drive to a different bar.

White testified that he stopped his bike at the corner after being blocked by a black Mercedes-Benz driven by Norris Jordan, Schellenger’s friend and the co-owner of the restaurants Lou Bird’s and Happy Rooster. Jordan’s vehicle was stuck behind another car on 17th Street.

White said he witnessed Jordan utter a racial slur toward the second car’s driver — an allegation that Jordan denied on the stand — then saw Schellenger get out of the Mercedes to confront the other motorist. White said he told Schellenger he didn’t need to be a “tough guy.”

According to White, Schellenger then walked toward him and uttered the racial insult, and White pulled out a knife to scare him away.

Medical records subsequently showed that Schellenger had a blood alcohol level twice the legal driving limit and traces of cocaine in his system during the confrontation. When he charged White and wrapped his arms around him, White plunged the knife — which had a 6-inch blade — into Schellenger’s back.

The two men collapsed to the ground, and White pulled the knife out.

Schellenger was pronounced dead that night. White ran from the scene and threw the knife onto the roof of a house in West Philadelphia — the basis for the charge of tampering with evidence. He turned himself in the next day.

White initially was charged with first-degree murder, in which the offender intends to kill the victim. But last fall, Krasner withdrew that count, saying prosecutors did not have evidence to support it. The decision allowed White to be released on bail and eliminated the potential for an automatic life sentence.

Earlier this month, Krasner again said he wanted to modify the charges and drop a count of third-degree murder. In a motion filed on the eve of trial, he said pursuing only voluntary manslaughter — often called a “heat of passion” killing or unjustified self-defense — would be “the most likely way to secure a just conviction.”

The decision incensed several of Schellenger’s relatives, who pointed out that White had been facing counts of both third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter and said a jury should have been able to decide if either count applied.

Third-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 20 to 40 years in prison. The maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter is 10 to 20 years.

The trial included accounts from White as well as a variety of eyewitnesses. A cell phone video of the killing, recorded by a witness, also was played for the jury.

Prosecutors had argued that White unnecessarily involved himself in an argument between Schellenger and someone else, then escalated the situation by pulling out a knife and using it against the unarmed Schellenger.

Schellenger “died for no reason,” Dandy said in her closing argument Wednesday.

White and his lawyers argued he had acted out of self-defense.

It was unclear what factors jurors considered, or whether issues of race or class had any role in their deliberations. Members of the racially mixed panel left the courthouse Thursday without speaking publicly. After the trial, Bronson, the judge, declined to release the jurors’ names to The Inquirer.

Throughout the trial, the courtroom was packed with supporters for both Schellenger and White. Schellenger’s relatives could be seen crying at times, particularly when the cell phone video was played for the jury.

White is due back in court Dec. 6 to be sentenced on the tampering conviction. He faces a maximum sentence of one to two years in jail.

Staff writer Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.