Speaking publicly for the first time, Michael White calmly told a Philadelphia jury on Tuesday that he stabbed Sean Schellenger last July, but never intended to kill him.
“It wasn’t an accident. I was defending myself,” said White during the third day of testimony in his voluntary manslaughter trial.
For more than three hours, White walked through the brief, but deadly incident that could put him behind bars for two decades if jurors find that he intentionally killed Schellenger and didn’t act in self-defense.
The 22-year-old said he was working as a bike courier when he came face-to-face with Schellenger, 37, after White tried to de-escalate a traffic dispute at 17th and Chancellor streets, about a block from Rittenhouse Square. A beige Ford Taurus was blocking the intersection, making it hard for the black Mercedes-Benz that Schellenger, a real estate developer, was traveling in to turn.
White said he spoke up after Schellenger got out of the Mercedes, rolled up his sleeves, and headed toward the Taurus with clenched fists “like he was intent on hurting someone.” Schellenger was white, and White said the driver of the Taurus was black.
“You don’t have to act like a tough guy. It’s not even that deep,” White, who is also black, said he told Schellenger.
White said Schellenger threatened him, telling him through gritted teeth that he would “beat the black off” him.
Schellenger’s words frightened him, said White, who testified he set down his bike and food delivery bag, pulled a knife out of his backpack, and told Schellenger to “back the f— up.”
Seconds later, White said Schellenger tackled him and lifted him into the air. White said he stabbed Schellenger simply to free himself from Schellenger’s tight grip.
“I don’t even remember it going in him. I was just trying to get him off me,” White said.
During cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Voci pressed White — about his decision to stop his bike at the intersection, involve himself in the confrontation, and stick around when he could have pedaled away “without any trouble at all.”
Voci also asked White why he fled after pulling his knife out of Schellenger’s back. If it was self-defense, said Voci, why didn’t he wait for police to arrive so he could tell them what happened?
“I was scared. I just wanted to get out of the area,” White said.
White trashed the bloody white T-shirt and the black backpack he was wearing that night. He threw the knife onto a roof.
Less than a day later, he surrendered to police and later told prosecutors where the knife could be found.
In addition to voluntary manslaughter, White is charged with possession of an instrument of crime, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice, in part because he allegedly made it difficult for investigators to unlock his cell phone.
The tampering and obstruction charges were added just before jury selection as part of an agreement between the District Attorney’s Office and White’s lawyers that removed one count of third-degree murder, an offense that could have sent White to prison for 40 years.
In an eleventh-hour brief, District Attorney Larry Krasner argued that pursuing voluntary manslaughter instead of third-degree murder was the “most likely way to secure a just conviction for this killing.”