PHILADELPHIA - Opening statements began Thursday in the Michael White trial, days after a judge agreed to a request to drop a third-degree murder charge and pursue voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges.
White, 22, is accused of fatally stabbing Sean Schellenger, 37, during a physical altercation in Rittenhouse Square last summer.
Brief, grainy cell phone video taken at 17th and Chancellor that night appears to show Sean Schellenger, a real-estate developer, lunge toward a knife-wielding Michael White, grab him in a bear hug and lift him off the ground. The video shows the two tumble and twist on the sidewalk, only White got up as Schellenger lay dying of a stab wound to the back.
In opening statements to the jury, prosecutors painted White as the aggressor that evening, inserting himself into a minor traffic dispute and producing a knife when confronted by Schellenger.
The prosecutor said, “he challenged and threatened Sean Schellenger" and when Schellenger tried to disarm him, White “raised the knife and drove it, with force, into Sean Schellenger’s back.”
“An unarmed man was slaughtered,” said the prosecutor, “over a traffic dispute.”
The defense told jurors Schellenger was the aggressor that he was drunk that night and threatened to “beat the black off” of White. “Michael White was afraid for his life,” said the defense, “He acted in self-defense.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has come under fire after he requested the charges against white be reduced from third-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter. That charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years.
Krasner argued that prosecutors had the best chance of a conviction pursuing only voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges against White. Prosecutors earlier withdrew a first-degree murder charge in the case.
Linda Schellenger, the victim's mother, blasted Krasner's decision to drop the third-degree murder charge Friday and urged the judge to reject the motion, saying "let the jury decide."
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Krasner said in the motion that jurors could accept that the stabbing occurred "under a sudden or intense passion from serious provocation or acting in unreasonable self-defense" and still convict on voluntary manslaughter, but those elements would be acceptable as a legal defense on a third-degree murder charge, so his "strategic and policy-based decision" was that a lead charge of voluntary manslaughter was the best chance for "a just conviction."
Right to left: Michael White, 22, has been charged with the murder of real estate developer Sean Schellenger.
In August, White's lawyers told the judge that their client would testify that Schellenger used a racial epithet during a physical altercation. Schellenger hadn't been previously accused of such remarks and prosecutors told the judge at the hearing that they had no evidence that he had done so. White is black and Schellenger was white; the two men didn't know each other.
Krasner said that White will face new evidence-tampering and obstruction charges, and said there was an "agreement by the defense" to those charges if prosecutors move to drop the third-degree murder charge.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.