The man accused of fatally stabbing a city developer near Rittenhouse Square last month will not be charged with first-degree murder, opening the possibility for him to be released from jail while awaiting trial and all but eliminating the potential of a life sentence.
Assistant District Attorney Lou Tumolo told Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden on Wednesday that prosecutors intend to proceed with charges of third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and possessing an instrument of crime in the case against Michael White, 21, accused of killing Sean Schellenger during a July 12 argument on the 1700 block of Chancellor Street.
Tumolo did not explain the reasoning behind the decision. But District Attorney Larry Krasner, who attended the hearing, said afterward that "there is not evidence to support" first-degree murder, which requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant intended to kill and carries an automatic sentence of life in prison.
Krasner also told reporters that the office was still investigating and that prosecutors ultimately could withdraw any murder count and charge White just with voluntary manslaughter.
Third-degree murder is generally defined as trying to harm someone but not intending to kill, and carries a maximum penalty of 20 to 40 years in prison. Voluntary manslaughter, often is referred to as a "heat-of-passion" killing that occurs after being provoked. The maximum sentence for that is 10 to 20 years behind bars.
"We have an open mind on whether this case is a third-degree case or is a voluntary-manslaughter case," Krasner said. "We believe we have closed out the possibility that it is first degree, and closed out the possibility that the case should not proceed."
White had been scheduled for a preliminary hearing Wednesday but Tumolo asked to delay that proceeding and instead sought only to specify the type of murder the office would seek and to request bail of $150,000.
Reuben Jones, cofounder of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, an advocacy group, said Wednesday afternoon that his organization and others, including the Philadelphia Bail Fund, planned to post 10 percent of that total Thursday, which would allow White to be released on house arrest pending trial.
"He needs to be out right now," Jones said.
Greg Thompson, a spokesman for White's relatives, said: "He's coming home soon."
Schellenger's relatives left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
But in a statement released late Wednesday night by 6ABC, Linda Schellenger, Sean Schellenger's mother, said Krasner had "manipulated" her.
"He was intellectually dishonest. He overruled his own prosecutors. They have clear video footage that would have allowed them to hold [White] on murder 1 and no bail. Larry showed up at a preliminary hearing, which is rare, to grandstand for political purposes. My son has become his political pawn. I wanted to trust him. He breached and abused that trust."
Late Wednesday night, 6ABC quoted the District Attorney's Office's response: "Top officials from the D.As Office, including D.A. Krasner and our Chief of Homicide, met with Ms. Schellenger for over two hours prior to today's hearing. The e-mail statement released this evening is starkly different from what Mrs. Schellenger repeatedly said….before, as well as during and after the preliminary hearing."
White's attorney, public defender Dan Stevenson, said he anticipates that the case will go to trial and that White would argue he was defending himself in the altercation with the developer. Stevenson and Krasner also pointed out that White spoke to prosecutors after surrendering to police, and Krasner said White even told them where to find the weapon, on the roof of a building.
"He has nothing to hide here," Stevenson said. "This was a fight on the highway that got out of hand."
Dressed in a long-sleeve T-shirt, White said nothing during the proceeding.
The courtroom was packed with his relatives and friends and those of Schellenger, 37, of Point Breeze, all of whom sat quietly. Hayden, the judge, implored those in the gallery to continue behaving civilly as they left.
"I want everyone who's here to act just like you are right now," Hayden said before dismissing the audience.
Krasner said he attended in part because he was aware that the case — which has attracted intense attention — had the potential to be "divisive."
Police have said White stabbed Schellenger once in the back after the two began arguing on Chancellor Street around 10:50 p.m. White was working as a bicycle courier for Uber Eats, police said, when he encountered Schellenger, who had been in a Mercedes-Benz with two other men but had gotten out to try to get a car in front of theirs to move.
White ran away after the stabbing but surrendered to police a day later.
Hundreds mourned Schellenger at a reception the following week. His mother said at the time that "two lives were lost in this disaster," referring to Schellenger and White, and said her son had "zero places in his heart for hate."
Relatives and supporters of White held a prayer vigil and a separate rally in the city on Tuesday calling for the charges against him to be downgraded and for him to be released on bail.