A day after a city jury found Michael White not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of real estate developer Sean Schellenger near Rittenhouse Square, relatives of both men said Friday that they had been on the receiving end of ugly threats on social media.
Tanya and Quinnell Armstrong, White’s aunt and uncle, said Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even Craigslist have been awash in racist tirades, leaving them afraid for White’s safety. They read from a post they said had been published anonymously on Craigslist, which purportedly said that a white man had been “slaughtered” by a “black animal who was found not guilty." It added: “Get out of Philadelphia while you’re still alive.”
White “doesn’t know who to look out for,” his aunt, Tanya Armstrong, 49, said.
Schellenger’s mother said that her family, too, has been on the receiving end of ugly social media comments that have frightened her and her relatives. She has been activating the alarm on her home in recent weeks, she said, blaming lawyers in the case for allowing it to become a “circus” that was wrongfully centered on race.
“It’s out there, and unfortunately angry people on either side of that fence may behave badly, and I don’t know what to do to stop that now that its opened up,” Linda Schellenger said in an interview Friday night.
Their comments came hours after the Inquirer filed a motion asking the judge who oversaw White’s trial to release the names of the jurors, none of whom has spoken publicly about the case.
The reaction from both sides suggested that the impact of the trial — despite the verdict — may be far from over.
“In our case, we lost someone,” said Schellenger.
“We thought it would all go away,” said Quinnell Armstrong, 51, referring to the ugly Internet commentary. “Evidently, we can’t" move forward, he said.
White’s three-day trial attracted widespread attention in part because it seemed to highlight the city’s fault lines of race and class.
The Armstrongs said they were not used to the attention and wanted it to end.
They declined to have White speak on Friday in part out of concerns for his safety. They also said he was struggling with how to safely proceed with work and his daily routine, and that his fatal stabbing of Schellenger — which White said was self-defense — was nonetheless "something he’s gotta take for the rest of his life.”
In meeting with reporters, the Armstrongs read from a screenshot image they said they took of the threat on Craigslist. The Inquirer could not find it later on the site; the Armstrongs said it had been removed.
Linda Schellenger was critical of District Attorney Larry Krasner and White’s defense attorneys, including Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, saying each had permitted White to claim her son had uttered a racial insult in the incident.
“The arguments that were made on behalf of [White] were made to create a divide between people,” she said.
Although Schellenger was encouraged by some online commentary urging people to stop “laughing or celebrating” the verdict, she said she has “absolutely” received hurtful comments, and that her family is worried about their safety.
“I’m not sure that any of us can control this,” Schellenger said.
Earlier Friday, The Inquirer filed a motion asking Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson to release the names of the jurors in the case, hoping to learn more about why the racially mixed panel decided to acquit White, 22, of voluntary manslaughter, obstruction, and possessing an instrument of crime.
Jurors did vote to convict White of tampering with evidence for throwing the knife onto a rooftop.
Stan Wischnowski, The Inquirer’s executive editor, said in a statement: “The insights that these jurors can provide are certain to yield a more complete understanding of what went into their decision in a case of such significant public interest.”
Bronson on Thursday declined to release juror names to The Inquirer.
Attorney Eli M. Segal, who represents The Inquirer, wrote Friday in a motion to the judge that “the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the press and the public have a First Amendment right to access juror names.”
In recent years, The Inquirer successfully petitioned a Montgomery County judge to identify jurors after both of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trials.
White had been working as a bicycle food courier last July when he randomly encountered Schellenger, of Point Breeze, who had been arguing with another motorist at 17th and Chancellor Streets.
Schellenger and White soon became engaged in their own brief dispute, according to witness testimony. White then pulled out a knife, Schellenger charged and tried to tackle him, and White fatally stabbed Schellenger in the back.
» READ MORE: Anatomy of a deadly clash
Prosecutors at trial had sought to prove that White unnecessarily injected himself into an argument between Schellenger and someone else, then escalated the situation by drawing his weapon before stabbing the unarmed Schellenger.
White’s attorneys, however, said that White had acted in self-defense. White also testified that Schellenger had told him, “I’ll beat the black off you” during their confrontation. No other witnesses who testified said they had heard Schellenger make any racial remarks.
The case stoked racial tensions in the city and drew additional controversy after Krasner twice downgraded charges against White. The second time occurred earlier this month, when Krasner said he wanted to drop third-degree murder charges.
White is due back in court in December to be sentenced on the tampering count. It carries a maximum sentence of two years.