At the opening of his trial, prosecutors said Michael White chose to fatally stab Sean Schellenger last summer during a brief but deadly confrontation over a traffic dispute in Rittenhouse Square.
“An unarmed man was slaughtered over a traffic jam that wasn’t that deep,” said Assistant District Attorney Anthony Voci on Thursday during his opening statement in White’s high-profile manslaughter trial.
White’s lawyers argue their 22-year-old client acted in self-defense that night after Schellenger, drunk and enraged, “bull-rushed” the bike courier and lifted him into the air like a professional wrestler.
Public defender Jonathan Strange told jurors that Schellenger, 37, told the jury that White feared for his life, in no small part because Schellenger, a stranger, threatened to “beat the black off” him.
Schellenger is white. White is black.
“[White] was afraid he’d be viciously beaten or killed,” said Strange, a packed courtroom behind him.
The two men crossed paths in July 2018 because a Ford Taurus was blocking the intersection at 17th and Chancellor Streets, making it difficult for the Mercedes Benz Schellenger and his friends were traveling in to turn.
Schellenger got out to yell at the driver of the Taurus. Strange said White rose to the driver’s defense, bringing the two face to face.
Roughly 30 minutes later, Schellenger was pronounced dead at the hospital after losing one-quarter of the blood in his body. The city’s assistant medical examiner testified on Thursday that White’s 7-inch blade penetrated Schellenger’s back and pierced his lung and aorta, the body’s main artery, causing his chest cavity to fill with blood.
“After that, he became a killer. The only question is whether he’ll be a convicted killer,” Voci said.
White — who turned himself in to police a day after the incident — is charged with voluntary manslaughter, possession of an instrument of crime, and tampering with evidence.
On Monday, the first day of jury selection, Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson accepted an 11th-hour motion to toss the third-degree murder charge against White, leaving voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge, as the case’s top offense.
In a brief filed the Friday before, District Attorney Larry Krasner said manslaughter was the “most likely way to secure a conviction for this killing.”
White was originally charged with first-degree murder. Krasner decided to change that last August because there wasn’t “enough evidence to support it.”
The high-profile trial is expected to last one week.
There is a gag order in the case barring attorneys from speaking to reporters. Bronson has also advised the families of White and Schellenger to stay away from one another — in person and online.