Monday, March 1, 2021

How To Tank A High-Profile Murder Case

By Ralph Cipriano
for BigTrial.net

When Michael White was going on trial for the murder of Sean Schellenger, District Attorney Larry Krasner had no time to meet with the victim's mother.

So on the Friday before jury selection was to begin on Monday, Krasner had to tell Linda Schellenger during a hastily arranged phone call that he was planning to drop a third-degree murder charge against White.

When Linda Schellenger protested that Krasner should let the jury decide whether White committed murder or not, the D.A. exploded. 

"He literally yelled at me on the phone," Linda Schellenger recalled. He admonished her for "questioning his authority and his intellect," she said, before telling her, "This is my decision."

Before trial, Linda Schellenger had called the D.A.'s office for five straight days trying to set up a meeting with Krasner, but he never called her back.

But more than a year before the case went to trial in October 2019, the D.A. huddled behind closed doors for more than three hours with the accused killer and his legal defense team composed of four lawyers and an investigator. 

In contrast to how he treated Linda Schellenger, Krasner had plenty of time -- and sympathy -- for Michael White.

"This is not going to be some kind of hard cross examination," Krasner began by telling White. "Uh, we'll listen to you for whatever that takes . . ."

During that July 25, 2018 meeting between White and the D.A., Krasner came across like a public defender or the career defense lawyer that he was for 30 years before he was elected D.A. At times Krasner sounded like a social worker; anything but a prosecutor. 

But when he met behind closed doors with White, Krasner was the sitting district attorney of Philadelphia who was conspiring to tank a high-profile murder case.

The session between Krasner, White and his lawyers was technically known as a proffer. 

A proffer is an interview conducted pursuant to a written agreement drawn up between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant. It allows the defendant to tell the government about his knowledge of a crime without suffering the usual consequences. 

The proffer comes with the assurance that if the defendant subsequently testifies as a prosecution witness, as long as he tells the truth and sticks to the same story, the defendant doesn't have to worry about what he said at the proffer being used against him in court. 

A prosecutor will typically arrange a proffer with a defendant to find out if he's willing to give up any unindicted co-conspirators, or any previously unknown details of a crime. 

Prosecutors will tell you that there was no reason to conduct a proffer with White, because he acted alone, there were eyewitnesses, and the entire crime was caught on video. Hence, there wasn't much to learn by meeting behind closed doors with the accused killer.

But under Krasner, the career defense lawyer, the purpose of the proffer flipped from playing offense to playing defense. Under Krasner, the proffer became a prep session to coach up White, so he could beat the rap.

It was highly unusual for a sitting district attorney to personally involve himself in a high profile murder case. It was also unusual for the D.A.'s office to voluntarily share with White all of the prosecution's evidence that they intended to use against him during a preliminary hearing, and at trial.

At a proffer, the normal playbook for a prosecutor is to have the defendant walk in naked, knowing nothing about what the prosecution knows or doesn't know. And then it's time for the defendant to start talking, and give up everything he knows about the crime.

But that's not the way Larry Krasner played the game. The evidence against White that the D.A. voluntarily shared with the accused killer and his team of lawyers included statements from witnesses, as well as a cell phone video taken by a bystander that showed White plunging a black, foot-long serrated knife with a seven-inch blade into the back of an unarmed Sean Schellenger. 

The knife sunk so deep, some seven inches, that it pierced Schellenger's aorta. 

While Schellenger bled to death in Rittenhouse Square, White ran away, catching a subway to his aunt's house. Along the way, he threw his bloody t-shirt in a trash can, and the bloody knife that was the murder weapon on top of a roof.

At the beginning of the proffer, Krasner told White that he was there to hear White's side of the story.

"So make real sure as you sit here now having seen the video, having seen what the witnesses are going to say, make real sure that what you say is true," Krasner cautioned. 

The D.A. made it clear that nobody had any intention of grilling White.

"We're going to ask you a bunch of open-ended questions," Krasner said. "This is not going to be some kind of hard cross-examination. Uh. we'll listen to you for whatever that takes; 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes to try to really understand what occurred . . ."

"This is not going to turn into someone yelling in your face or point the finger in your face, but your obligation, the weight on your shoulders to tell the truth is heavy, and it's heavy because of your future," Krasner said. "It's also heavy because of what happened here."

Anthony Voci, then the D.A.'s head of the homicide unit, took over the questioning. Voci asked White about his job as an Uber Eats driver. On the night he killed Schellenger, White was making deliveries on his bicycle. In his backpack, for protection, White had brought along his serrated knife.

Between 10:45 and 10:53 p.m. on July 12, 2018, a nervous White stated, the then 20-year-old was headed to 3200 Chestnut Street with an order of chicken tenders and fries. On the way, he cut through the streets bordering Rittenhouse Square.

"Um, I see a black Mercedes Benz going eastbound trying to make a right turn southbound on 17th Street and there's a Ford Taurus parked directly on the corner and the Benz had uh, attempted to make a right turn, and I tried to go between the two cars, but the Benz had cut me off," White said.

"Mr. White, slow down," Krasner interjected. "Take a deep breath. Mr. Voci wants you to explain in detail everything that happened. Don't be rushed, OK?"

White explained that he was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk, trying to get around the Mercedes, but the driver "didn't give me the right of way, and he was trying to to make the turn. But I noticed the driver was like screaming, like move, move, move, like very furiously."

White said he thought the driver of the Mercedes was screaming at the driver of the Taurus that was parked on the corner at Chancellor and 17th Street, blocking the street.

"I heard him [the driver of the Mercedes] say the N word. I read his lips," White said.

According to White, a passenger in the front seat and was "speaking outside [the car] to everybody, like excuse my friend, we just left the bar. We had just drank a little bit. He was excusing his behavior."

And then, White said, he saw Sean Schellenger for the first time. According to White, the 37-year-old developer, got out of the back seat of the Mercedes and "began to confront the guy in the Ford Taurus." 

Schellenger, a big former Penn State football player and high school wrestling champion, was, in White's opinion, acting "in a manner that seem aggressive."

When Voci asked why the thought that White replied, "Because his sleeves were rolled up and he was walking like . . . like when you're about to approach someone to fight him."

That's when White decided to get involved in a dispute that by White's own admission, was already over.

"At that point I point out to Sean, I say, you don't have to act like that," White said. "You're acting like a tough guy. Because he was approaching the driver of the Taurus in a way that seemed aggressive, and I didn't like the situation . . .  I didn't like the way it looked."

"Had any point in time had Sean said or done anything to you?," Voci asked.

"No," White replied.

White stated he was standing on the sidewalk about ten feet away from the two cars, holding his bike. 

Then, White said, the driver of the Taurus "walked over to me and assured me that everything was OK. And he [the driver of the Taurus] shook my hand and confirmed it."

But, White said, Schellenger "turned his attention to me."

"He grit his teeth at me. He looked me in my eyes and said, he said, 'I'm going to beat the black off you,' " White said.

None of the other witnesses interviewed by the police, however, heard Schellenger say anything racial during his confrontation with White. Only White told this story, and his talking points seemed well-rehearsed.

Law enforcement sources, however, told Big Trial that they believed the racial angle in this case was manufactured. Schellenger had a black former girlfriend, and many former teammates who were black, all of whom attested to authorities that Schellenger wasn't prejudiced.

But White and his legal team were running with their story of a racial conflict, as White proceeded to explain.

"At that point, I thought to myself, if someone says they're going to beat the black off me then that means, you know, you're going to beat the identity off of me because I identify as black," White said.

"That's what I've been my entire life, so at that point, I feared for my life," White said. "I got off my bike. I left it on the ground. I took my backpack off. I pulled the knife out in a way to say, please back the fuck up."

An eyewitness to the crime who was a friend of Schellenger's would testify that he heard White say, "You want this?" as he brandished the knife. Then, he warned Schellenger, "You don't want this."

But in White's version of the story, Schellenger was the verbal aggressor who got physical. 

"Then he [Schellenger] charged me and tackled me to the ground," White said.

As Schellenger was tackling him, White said, he stabbed Schellenger, "not knowing how deep this wound was about to be, or anything, I just stabbed down."

"At that moment in time, um did you intend to kill him," Voci asked.

"No, I did not," White said; "I was just trying to get out of that situation alive."

Voci asked if Schellenger was armed.

"No, but he was considerably larger than me," White said, before returning to his mantra. "And he had just threatened to beat the black off of me."

Voci asked what happened to Schellenger after White stabbed him.

"He finished the tackle to the ground and at that point his body went limp and I just threw him off," White said. 

"And then after that, I got up. I looked around at what had just happened, and I said oh shit, and I ran because I was just scared at what had just unfolded, like this isn't something that normally happens in my day-to-day life."

Before he got on a trolley at 30th Street and Market, White said he took off his white T-shirt "so I could wipe the blood off my face."


"Was that blood on your face your blood or Sean's blood," Voci asked.


"It was Sean's blood," White said.


White said he put the bloody t-shirt in his backpack, and then he rode the trolly to 52nd and Lancaster, where his Aunt Tonya lived.


When he got off the trolley, he threw the backpack with the bloody T-shirt in a trash can on the street, because "I just wanted to get everything off of me," White said. "I wanted to get rid of everything because it, it was a scary situation I didn't intend to kill anybody. I didn't have that in my mind."


Next, White said,  "I took the knife out of the bag and I just threw it on somebody's roof."


Although White claimed he didn't intend to kill Schellenger, White admitted to Voci that he did intend to stab him.


Voci didn't have any more questions. 


Krasner took over.


"So Michael, I don't have a lot of questions about the incident," Krasner said. "But I do want to ask you some other questions about your life."


Krasner asked if White was a member of a church.


"I don't go to church regularly," White replied, "but I do believe in God."


Krasner asked about White's hobby of writing poetry, and if he ever wrote a poem about the killing of Schellenger.


"No," White replied.


Krasner asked about White's education, the schools he went to, and why he dropped out of Morgan State University in Baltimore.


"I was suffering a lot back home," White told the D.A.


The D.A. asked about the trouble at home.


His mother was struggling, White said, because she didn't have "enough money."


Krasner asked about White's grades at college during the two semesters he was there.


"They weren't very like spectacular at all," White said, before he finally admitted to the D.A.'s follow-up questions that his grades were "failing."


"Why did you want to pursue sociology?" Krasner asked.

"Because I've always wanted to know why people do the things that they do, and I figured sociology was the best way to figure that out because it's the study of like social interactions," White said.

"How do you feel about what you did?" Krasner asked.

"I feel extremely remorseful for the simple fact that a man's life was lost," White said. "I also feel remorseful for the fact that his family had to bury him in a manner in which they didn't expect. And personally, it's something that I want to take back because I know murder is a sin. That weighs heavily
like on my mind on a daily basis ever since this happened."


"I thought I heard you say basically that you turned yourself in because they knew that they would catch you," Krasner said. "Is that, is that accurate or did I misunderstand you?"


"I think you misunderstood me because it wasn't a thing where I was trying to run or get away," White said. "I want that to be very clear. I wasn't running from anything. The only thing I ran from was the crime scene because I was shocked at what had just happened . . ."


"I want to make that clear," White said. "Because I feel like you guys think that I wanted to escape from this somehow, some way when that was not my intention. I am a person who accepts full responsibility when they do something wrong. I'm a person who understands when they do something wrong. I'm a person who will own up to that."


"So did you do something wrong?" Krasner asked.


"Personally, I was defending my life, so no, I don't think I did something wrong, but in the eyes of God, yes, I did do something wrong," White said. "I took a person's life. That's a sin. When you read the Bible, that's part of the ten commandments."

"Why did you take out the knife?" Krasner asked.


"He told me he was going to beat the black off of me," White repeated. 

"I understand that," Krasner said.

White then launched into another speech, and this one was a doozy.

In his speech, White compared his stabbing to death of Sean Schellenger to the case of Emmett Till. Way back in 1955, in Mississippi, the 14-year-old Till was beaten and lynched, after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store.

It was a tragedy that took place some 40 years before White was born.

"So when I hear that, I think of my identity. I identify myself as black," White said. "I'm an African American male. So if someone says they're going to beat the black off of me, I think to myself my identity is going to be taken off of me, and the only way that can happen."

"I think back to the Emmett Till case," White said. "He had the black beaten off of him, and he ended up dead. And I've seen this happen over and over and over and over in different situations. I'm not saying that this was like that situation but it was something that I feared."

In the room some people were rolling their eyes during White's Emmett Till speech, but Krasner was drinking it in. When he went on trial, however, White chose not to reprise his Emmett Till speech for the jury.  

"What were you hoping to accomplish when you pulled out that knife," Krasner asked. 


"I thought that he would see the knife and he would back away from me because he saw the size of the knife," White said. "There was never a point where I was like wanting to kill this man. I wanted him to see the knife and back the hell away from me."

Krasner asked again about White's home life.

"It was just bad," White said, and then he revealed how bad. In 2009, White said, his father was arrested for repeatedly raping his sister, who got pregnant, and had a child.

White's father went to jail, his mother got depressed. The family fell into economic despair.

"The lights have been off, the gas has been off," White said; his family "barely had any food." 

Then, in 2014, White got hit and run over by a truck. After he got out of the hospital, White told Krasner, he got kicked out of the house and he wound up in therapy. Then, he tried to kill himself a "couple of times."

White showed Krasner a scar.

"I see it," the D.A. said.

Krasner asked White why he carried the knife.

White explained that he'd been robbed twice in the past, in 2015, when he was 17.

The first time, he said he got "robbed at gunpoint. And I said, Ok; I just gave up my stuff."

The second time he got robbed, he was walking up 58th Street and "a bunch of people just came up behind me, and jumped me, took my phone, took my wallet, took my bag. And I was just left without nothing."

Krasner asked if White had ever reported either robbery to the police, and White said no.

When Krasner asked why, White said the first time, he didn't want to be killed "for snitching." The second time, White said, he didn't have a "clear description" of his assailants, and the only things he lost were "material things" that can be replaced.

The prep session was almost over. Krasner brought up Linda Schellenger, the victim's mother, whom White was sure to run into at the trial. And Krasner asked, "What would you say to her if she was here."

"The first thing I would do is apologize," White said.

"For what," Krasner asked.

"For the incident that happened on July 12th," White said.

"Incidents don't happen by themselves, right?" Krasner said. "What would you apologize to Mrs. Schellenger for?"

"I would apologize to her for being the reason that Mr. Schellenger's life is no longer being lived," White said.

When Michael White was first arrested, the charge against him was first-degree murder. After the July 25, 2018 proffer session, less than a week later, on Aug. 1, 2018, Krasner dropped that charge of first-degree murder down to third-degree murder.

When the case went to a preliminary hearing, on Oct. 30, 2018, White's lawyers went on offense with their "beat the black off me" defense. Naturally, it was a big hit with the media, particularly with the social justice warriors at The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

"What has caused the press to parachute in and the courtroom to be packed is the intersection of class and race," asserted Dan Stevenson, White's lawyer.

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

But Assistant District Attorney Voci wasn't buying it.

After the hearing, where White was held over for trial, Voci told reporters, "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," Voci told reporters.  "He was trying to disarm a dangerous person who had drawn a knife for no reason whatsoever after interjecting himself into an argument."


George Parry, a Philadelphia lawyer who's a former state and federal prosecutor, was puzzled by the D.A.'s proffer session with White.

"The whole situation makes no sense to me whatsoever," Parry said. "They had eyewitnesses that saw White stab Schellinger in the back."

"What do you need a proffer for?" Parry said. "Why even talk to him? They had this guy dead to rights on murder."

In Pennsylvania, to prove first-degree murder, it's necessary to show that the defendant acted willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation to kill another person.

When it came to the murder of Sean Schellenger, White had already stated that he interjected himself into an argument that was already settled. 

Instead of going on his way to deliver that order of fries and chicken tenders, White hung around, dug into his backpack, and pulled out the foot-long knife and brandished it at Schellenger. 

And then when Schellenger charged him, White stated that he deliberately and willfully stabbed Schellenger to death. 

"It's a first degree murder job," Parry said. "I don't know how you dress it up as anything else."

Parry said he also didn't understand all of Krasner's questions about White's troubled home life.

"What the hell has that got to do with anything?" Parry asked.

In a lecture he gave at UCLA on Oct. 31, 2018, "Reimagining the role of the prosecutor," Larry Krasner, however, talked about the advantages of doing proffer sessions with criminal defendants. Why? Because he's a different kind of district attorney.

"When there is such an adversarial relationship between the defense and the prosecution, there is no trust," Krasner said. But, Krasner said, things are different since a career defense lawyer like himself had taken over as D.A.

The implication was that Krasner was a district attorney that public defenders and criminal defense lawyers could not only trust, but work with together as a team. Like they did with Michael White. 

As Krasner explained about criminal defendants, "They think, 'We will give them a fair call,' that we’re the umpires on this stuff, and we won’t just use it against them," Krasner said. "So that to me is an advantage that I never perceived we would have but I think it’s a tremendous advantage."

And then Krasner, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, made an apparent reference to Michael White's case.

"We have one case where the murder weapon would have been long gone except that when the proffer happened, the person came in and he told us where it was, and we went and got it," Krasner said.

Even Krasner called the knife a "murder weapon."

On the day jury selection was supposed to begin, Oct. 5, 2019, Krasner dropped the third-degree murder charge against White, leaving voluntary manslaughter as the most serious charge that White was facing.

It was a move that greatly aided White's chances of walking.

Why? Because to prove third-degree murder, a prosecutor must only show that a defendant acted recklessly, and not intentionally. But it's actually harder to prove voluntary manslaughter, because a prosecutor has to prove that the defendant acted with willful intent to kill someone. 

What was the result? In court on Oct. 17, 2019, on the charge of voluntary manslaughter, the jury acquitted White.

The only charge the jury convicted White of was tampering with evidence, because White had admitted he had tossed the murder weapon on a roof. For that crime, the judge sentenced White to two years probation. 

Krasner, in an email statement released by his office right after the verdict, stated that his “heart goes out to family and friends of Sean Schellenger, whose pain and trauma are evident even today.”

But Linda Schellenger was having none of that. As far as she was concerned, the verdict in her son's murder case was a travesty of justice "totally orchestrated from the beginning" by District Attorney Larry Krasner. 

George Parry agrees. 

"Larry's just in the wrong job," Parry said. "He should have stuck to being a defense lawyer."

Because as a prosecutor, Parry said, "Larry has no time for victims. They get in the way of his social justice narrative. They're a speed bump on the way to social utopia." 

What about justice for Sean Schellenger, and his grieving mother, who told me that every day, she wakes up with "a white elephant sitting on my chest."

"What was done to that woman and her family was just horrifying," Parry agreed. "She was re-victimized by the district attorney who's supposed to be sticking up for her dead son."

16 comments

  1. Great piece here. Fantastic read by an absolutely superb author. Ralph is a true gem. Hope he puts out another book. My wife and I have read all four; me, i've read them twice. Thank you, Ralph Cipriano.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "questioning his authority and his intellect," she said, before telling her, "This is my decision."
    The victim's mother was NOT questioning Krasner's authority and intellect, but questioning his lack of ethics and integrity.
    Krasner is a man bankrupt in so many ways and he does not see any of his emptiness.
    Power does indeed corrupt.

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  3. So when does our POS Democrat Attorney General get involved?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you really think he'll make things better?

      Delete
    2. Our wonderful state attorney general will not get involved in petty matters like first degree murder. There are more important people to go after like anyone who observes a single person stuffing dozens of ballots into a drop off box.

      Delete
    3. My guess is the AG will never get involved. Josh Shapiro is a career politician who goes whichever way the political winds are blowing. I'd love to be wrong.

      But look at the evidence. He's never taken on Krasner in the past three years. He just cleared Krasner's gun violence coordinator of murder for the shooting death of a male prostitute during office hours.

      He also cleared Dana Bazelon, one of Krasner's top aides, of child endangerment after she left her daughter in a locked car.

      Shapiro appears to be afraid of running afoul of Krasner, BLM, and the whole progressive social justice warrior crowd.

      Delete
  4. Our story is very similar. My son was shot and killed during a robbery that was all caught on tape. The original ADA was going for murder one. Then Krasner came in and assigned a new ADA. We finally got our meeting with her the week before the trial was to begin and were told there wasn't going to he a trial as they has offered him a deal of 3rd degree if he pleads guilty. He agreed and was sentenced to 15 years for the horrific murder of my only son. We told her we didn't agree and she said it was not our decision to make. It was theirs. Voci said the bottom line is that if they agree to plead guilty, there is no trial and no cause for appeals referencing Mumia.
    They just don't care about the victims.

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    Replies
    1. When was the trial? Do you remember who the ADA was?

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  5. As a non-resident of Philadelphia I'm curious how this story has been framed by the inky. Was the cellphone video of the incident presented to the jury at the trial? I don't understand how someone could walk out of court free after knifing an unarmed man in the back. Was this a Bronx jury acquitting their own or pure prosecutorial incompetence? It all troubles the hell out of me and squares with the larger narrative being promulgated at the national level, that crime is the new black entitlement.

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    Replies
    1. If memory serves me correctly, "Inky" portrayed/alluded murder victim as intoxicated, a cocaine user, and an utter racist. In contrast, they did everything but paint a halo over the head of the murderer who walks our streets freely, thanks to Mrs. Krasner. The result was not unlike OJ Simpson verdict. Agreed, 100%, with your final sentence.

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  6. Where is Josh Shapiro on this? Would like to see him on CNN explain why he allows this prosecutorial misconduct?

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  7. No mention of who the defense attorney was or how much he contributed to Krasner's election. I am sure that would have influenced Krasner's personal attention to the case

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  8. White was defended by a team of public defenders.

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  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf4_meSeJCc

    ReplyDelete

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