It all happened in mere seconds.
Michael White said he was riding his bike north along 17th Street near Rittenhouse Square on his way to deliver Popeyes chicken when he came across two stopped cars. The driver of a black Mercedes honked his horn at a gold Taurus idling in front of him, allegedly muttering a racial epithet in his frustration, White said in court Tuesday.
His testimony marks the first time jurors heard directly from White - who is facing one count of voluntary manslaughter plus obstruction, tampering and weapons charges - in the 2018 stabbing death of real estate developer Sean Schellenger.
"I had no intention of killing anyone," defendant White told jurors Tuesday morning.
The question jurors must consider is not whether White killed Schellenger, but whether he intended for Schellenger to die and whether White was justified in stabbing the victim after a heated verbal altercation escalated into a bloody fight.
White’s legal team, led by Philadelphia Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Gray and Jonathan Strange, maintain that White acted in self-defense. But prosecutor Anthony Voci, Jr., chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office homicide unit, said White made a series of decisions that caused Schellenger’s death.
”You could have pedaled away,” Voci said to White Tuesday.
White, however, described his actions as a series of reactions, from stopping his bike after hitting traffic to pulling out his knife when he felt threatened by Schellenger to stabbing him during their fight.
”I cannot forget that night,” White said. “I was horrified.”
According to White’s testimony, Schellenger exited his friend’s Mercedes, rolled up his sleeves and argued with the driver of the gold Taurus.
”There’s really no need to act like a tough guy,” White told Schellenger, according to his testimony.
Schellenger allegedly gritted his teeth at White, threatening to “beat the black off” him. Within moments, a fight between the two men broke out. Neither of Schellenger’s companions that night - restaurateur Norris Jordan and Uri Jacobson - heard that comment but multiple witnesses said Schellenger advanced on White.
The play-by-play of what happened next drew stifled cries from Schellenger’s mother, who sobbed when White described tugging his knife from her son’s back.
“It wasn’t as calculated as you make it seem,” White told Voci during cross examination. “I didn’t have time to make decisions.”
After stabbing Schellenger, White fled to his aunt’s home in West Philadelphia, where he had been living before returning to Morgan State University in Maryland. He tossed his bloody clothes in the trash and threw his knife on the roof. The next day, he read local news websites to find out if Schellenger survived their confrontation.
White eventually confessed to his family and surrendered to authorities. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Voci both interviewed White in the days following, according to court testimony.
The case itself, initially described as a "confluence of race and class" by defense attorneys, has drawn criticism and concern from both sides.
Schellenger’s family protested outside Krasner's office after learning prosecutors agreed to reduce White's initial third-degree murder charge. Then on Tuesday, defense attorney Strange told Common Pleas Judge Glenn B. Bronson that at least one character witness for the defense received harassing tweets over the weekend.
"I take this more seriously than anything else," Bronson warned Tuesday morning. If witnesses can't freely testify, "the whole system is undermined."
White formally pleaded not guilty last week to all charges.
Voluntary manslaughter, which requires prosecutors to prove intent, could carry a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years, at least half the sentence for third-degree murder. The added obstruction and tampering counts each carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
Last week, jurors heard testimony from Jordan and Jacobson, plus the medical examiner who performed Schellenger’s autopsy, several people who saw the fight and two character witnesses testifying on behalf of White.
On Tuesday, prosecutors introduced two additional character witnesses on behalf of Schellenger. One of them, Patricia Strickland, a 73-year-old Point Breeze resident, said Schellenger was "like a son" to her. Another, Ramy Shraim, said Schellenger was his best friend.
Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Temple University professor, writer and activist, were among Tuesday's character witnesses who testified on behalf of White. Hill said he first met the defendant in 2015 through the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and described him as having "a very strong reputation for being law-abiding and truthful."
"Carrying a weapon [for protection] isn't inconsistent with being peaceful," Hill said.
Closing statements are expected Wednesday morning. Jury deliberations could begin as early as Wednesday afternoon.