Prosecutor moves to drop murder charge in traffic slaying

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia’s top prosecutor is moving to drop a third-degree murder charge against a bicycle deliveryman in the stabbing death of a real estate developer during a traffic confrontation near the city’s tony Rittenhouse Square last year.

With trial scheduled to begin Monday for 22-year-old Michael White, District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a motion Friday to drop the more serious charge, saying prosecutors had the best chance of a conviction pursuing only a voluntary manslaughter charge as well as a weapons count.

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,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Police say 37-year-old Sean Schellenger was in a car with two others in July 2018 when a confrontation began with White, who was delivering food for Uber Eats on his bicycle and who authorities said pulled a knife and stabbed him. 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 and urged the judge to reject the motion, saying “let the jury decide.”

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. He also said it’s the policy of his office to reject the idea of “seeking the highest possible charge or the longest possible sentence as leverage or as a bargaining tactic in all cases.”

Director Malik Neal of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, one of two nonprofits that posted bail for White, hailed Krasner’s action, calling it “critically important” that the district attorney “base his charges on the facts before him,” especially in “difficult, highly publicized cases such as this one.”