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Rittenhouse Square stabbing suspect Michael White held for trial on third-degree murder charge

Michael White was held for trial on a third-degree murder charge in the stabbing death of developer Sean Schellenger in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

Sean Schellinger (left) and Michael White.
Sean Schellinger (left) and Michael White.Read moreHandout

In a standing-room-only Philadelphia courtroom on Tuesday, Michael White, charged with the stabbing death of developer Sean Schellenger near Rittenhouse Square, was held for trial on third-degree murder.

New details about the high-profile case emerged when two witnesses testified that they saw White, 21, a food deliveryman, holding a knife as Schellenger grabbed him and lifted him off the ground.

Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden ruled that there was enough evidence to hold White for trial on charges of third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and possessing an instrument of crime.

Erik Peterson, a server at Spice Finch, a restaurant at 17th and Chancellor Streets, said that shortly before 11 p.m. on July 12 he saw two men, one black and one white,  talking on Chancellor when White, delivering food on a red bicycle, "inserted himself in the conversation."

After Schellenger turned to White, Peterson said, he couldn't hear what was said. But he said he saw White draw a knife in his right hand and hold it slightly behind his hip, the two men a few feet apart. White moved back, holding up his left hand as if signaling to stop, Peterson said.

Schellenger, 37, lowered his head and "charged" White, who raised the knife higher, Peterson said. The men fell to the ground, Peterson said. "I saw the fall and rising of the knife, but that's when I turned away," he said.

White, dressed in a cream shirt, striped tie, and sweater jacket, did not say anything openly during the hearing. He appeared solemn.

Outside the courthouse, Schellenger's mother, Linda, said, "Justice was served today."

The judge "listened to the facts, and he made sure justice is occurring," she said. "People didn't know the facts. They know them today." The family had been worried that the judge would toss out the third-degree charge and hold White only for manslaughter. "While Sean isn't coming back, I  hope that we can help pave the way for violent crimes to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and find a voice for victims and their families in this city that Sean loved," she said.

>>READ MOREAnatomy of a deadly clash 

Hayden took White off house arrest and ordered that he report in person to the probation office every two weeks, a move that upset Schellenger. "I'm sad for the streets we walk," she said.

Tanya James, White's aunt, did not respond to requests for comment. Her nephew has been living with her and her husband at their Overbrook home while under house arrest.

Schellenger's death brought together parallel lives in a neighborhood of trendy restaurants and put a spotlight on what divided him and White — race and money, success and desperation.

In Courtroom 306, Schellenger's family and friends wore blue oval buttons that read, "Justice for Sean." White's supporters donned white T-shirts with the words, "Freedom for Michael." They sat shoulder to shoulder, while latecomers stood against the wall in the stuffy courtroom, where several sheriff's deputies kept watch.

Norris Jordan, the other witness Tuesday and a longtime friend of the developer, also described the deadly encounter.

After leaving Rouge, a bistro on Rittenhouse Square, before 11 p.m., Jordan drove Schellenger and another man up Chancellor toward 17th, and were blocked by a beige car, he said. Schellenger got out and asked the driver to move. White interjected himself into the discussion, Jordan said.

Their voices grew louder, and White went to "grab for his backpack and try to open it," Jordan said. "He was frustrated that it wouldn't open at first, but he pulled it a few times and it opened."

"You want this?" Jordan said he heard White ask Schellenger. Then he warned, "You don't want this."

Schellenger, a high school wrestling champ, wrapped his arms around White's waist "in what looked like a wrestling move," Jordan testified, and lifted White's feet off the ground. In "a very strong, aggressive move," White went over Schellenger's back and they fell to the ground, Jordan said.

Anthony Voci Jr., chief of the homicide unit at the District Attorney's Office, said a toxicology report showed that Schellenger's blood alcohol level was 0.199, which is more than twice the legal definition for drunken driving. A vitreous test, which samples the fluid in the eyeball, turned up a trace of cocaine, Voci said Tuesday.

"This was a street fight that turned deadly," White's attorney, Dan Stevenson, said at the preliminary hearing. "What has caused the press to parachute in and the courtroom to be packed is the intersection of class and race."

"A very large, a very drunk, rich white man" tackled a "poor black kid who was defending himself in a physical assault," Stevenson said in court.

After the hearing, Voci said, "Race and class has nothing to do with this case. It's two human beings who got into a verbal confrontation and ended with one dead. … The reality is, no one is going to know what was going through Sean's mind at that time." He added: "He was trying to disarm a dangerous person who had drawn a knife for no reason whatsoever after interjecting himself into an argument."