August 01, 2018
During a Tuesday night visit from his attorneys, Michael White learned that first-degree murder charges filed against him for allegedly stabbing real estate developer Sean Schellenger to death near Rittenhouse Square last month would get reduced today to lesser offenses.
That would come as welcome news to anybody facing the prospect of life behind bars. But it didn’t immediately register as reality for the 21-year-old man.
“He knew it was happening when he walked into the courtroom this morning,” family spokesman Greg Thompson said Wednesday. “He couldn’t believe it was happening until he heard it, though.”
White heard just that – along with the fact that his bail would be set at $150,000 as a result – around 10 a.m. in a solemn Courtroom 306 filled with supporters of both the victim and the suspect.
It was packed to the point that people stood three or four deep along the walls, well beyond the room’s 181-person capacity.
Collective expressions belied grief – with tissues wiping tears from faces – along with anger and astonishment that the lives of those involved had taken this tragic turn.
There were no outbursts when the reduced charges were announced, and seemingly few to no words were exchanged between the sides.
For his part, White sat at the defense table, with a hand often resting on his left cheek, looking down and toward Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden’s bench while occasionally talking to his attorneys.
Among those at the Criminal Justice Center for the hearing in a high-profile case – White is charged with fatally stabbing Schellenger, 37, of Point Breeze, during a roadway confrontation along the 1700 block of Chancellor Street on July 12 – was District Attorney Larry Krasner.
In court, Krasner spoke with the victim’s mother, Linda. He said they’ve been in regular contact, whether that be in person or on the phone.
“I wanted to make sure she was aware of everything that was happening,” Krasner said. “I wanted to make sure there were no surprises. … This is a case where the (victim’s) mother has been incredibly gracious.”
The hearing, which took less than a half hour, featured little interplay between the sides as Assistant District Attorney Louis Tumolo and Dan Stevenson, chief of the Public Defender’s Office homicide/special defense unit, had already reached an agreement.
Krasner said the decision to drop the first-degree murder charge was made because “there is not evidence to support it.”
Asked about the self-defense claim being offered by White’s side, he said the investigation is ongoing, intimating that the third-degree murder charge could conceivably be dropped if findings warrant such a move.
“It is relevant both that the defendant ran at the time of the incident, hid for a couple days, and turned himself in,” Krasner said, noting that White allegedly threw the knife used to kill Schellenger onto a rooftop, but later told investigators where it was.
“We have specific leads that we need to try to evaluate,” continued Krasner, who confirmed Wednesday “there is video of the incident.”
He was asked about critics who maintain that his leniency with criminal defendants led to downgraded charges for White.
“Were they witnesses? Have they seen one piece of evidence? Did they witness the incident? Have they read a statement from a witness?” he asked. “This is an office that follows the evidence where it leads, and it is not surprising to me that critics who know nothing have everything to say.”
Atwood is a former executive director of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission and current executive director of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. White was involved with the group as a poet. Atwood thanked them for supporting White.
“These cameras are going to go away at some point … but we know we won’t. We’re going to continue to stand firm as a family that’s supportive of Michael,” noting there could be a need for a GoFundMe campaign. “The energy and support and the love that we have at this moment is what we need to continue to maintain.”
Bishop Ernest McNear of True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church helped arrange White’s surrender several days after the incident. He also fielded questions after the hearing alongside family spokesman Greg Thompson.
“One of the things that Michael has said is that people should not go to jail for defending themselves. People should have the right to defend themselves, and the persons who perpetrate these things, they are the people who are supposed to be punished,” Thompson said. “That’s why he’s totally confused, because he was defending himself from these three individuals.”
Thompson, who claimed that Krasner told Schellenger’s family of the decision “and they understood and agreed,” also explained why White was shaking his head in court.
“He thought that the system was not going to work for him,” he said. “What you saw was just disbelief.”
McNear said the size of the crowd, including many wearing T-shirts with White’s photo atop the word “Freedom,” also had an impact.
“He’s never been convicted of a crime. Never. Never been in jail,” McNear said. “This is a frightening, frightening situation for him. … The process worked for a change for this young man.”
They said they expected that White would be out on bail within the coming hours or days.
"He's coming home soon," said McNear, noting that he's not only praying for White, but for Schellenger's family. "Our hearts go out to them."
The next hearing is scheduled for October 30.