Families of those who are killed at another’s hand experience more than the heartbreak and suffering associated with death. Often, they become enmeshed in the criminal justice system — motions and hearings and trials. They are not a party to the proceedings but rather important sideline players — reminding the prosecutors, the court, the jury and society at large of the worth of the individual no longer with us.
Though prosecutors traditionally fight aggressively for law and order — and for the appropriate punishment — justice often can move at a glacial pace. The wound that is the family’s loss cannot heal as the case meanders through the system.
Sean Schellenger died at the hand of Michael White on July 12, 2018. As has been addressed elsewhere on this site, the Schellenger family believes, in no uncertain terms, that Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner consistently manipulated the case, reducing the initial first-degree murder charge to third degree and then to manslaughter. Faced with a charge that didn’t fit the facts, the jury acquitted White of manslaughter, instead finding him guilty of a minor charge of tampering with evidence.
The Schellenger family believes that Krasner’s abrupt and almost secret machinations were designed to guarantee an acquittal.
On Thursday, the nightmare continued as the Schellenger family again appeared in court. They were told that, because White had missed four of his six required interactions with his probation officer, a judge had scheduled a hearing to address the issue. Apparently, prosecutors had asked that White’s bail be revoked while he awaits sentencing for the tampering of evidence charge.
Accompanying the Schellengers to court was their process server. They have sued White, hoping a civil jury will find him liable for what he did to Sean. To get that case moving, White must be served — meaning he must be personally handed a copy of the civil lawsuit by someone who is not a party to the case.
However, White did not show up to this hearing to explain why he is not consistently checking in with his probation officer as the law requires. His defense attorney told the judge that he was “at work” and not available. In a stunning display of leniency, the judge excused White’s non-appearance, as well as his non-compliance with the conditions of his probation, saying they would be addressed at the sentencing in December. It appears that, in addition to all its other problems, probation terms are no longer strictly enforced in Philadelphia — at least for some defendants.
It seems that, in Philadelphia, criminals do not suffer the consequences of their actions.
Based on his attorney’s statement that White was at work, the Schellengers immediately sent their process server there. Clearly, the Philadelphia court system won’t be holding White accountable any time soon, so the Schellenger family will proceed on their own. A civil jury verdict in their favor won’t mean a loss of liberty for White, but it might provide them some degree of justice — and comfort.
Imagine the Schellengers’ surprise when their process server learned that not only was White not at work during the time of the hearing he missed —- he was not even scheduled to report there until much later in the day.
So, was White untruthful with his lawyer? Why was he not where his lawyer told the court he would be? Why had the authorities not followed up? Remember, White is out on bail — and the conditions of that bail require checking in regularly, at appointed times, with his probation officer. (Of course no one is under any illusion that probation rules, court hearings or bench warrants prevent crime. There was a bench warrant out for White in July 2018 when he plunged a knife into Sean Schellenger’s back.)
The Schellenger family immediately notified the District Attorney’s Office, which then told the judge, who scheduled another hearing on White’s probation violations.
It seems that, in Philadelphia, criminals do not suffer the consequences of their actions. Do you have a court hearing today? Just tell them you are working — how would anyone know the difference? Have to report to a probation officer twice per week? Why bother —- the court will not mete out any punishments or hold you accountable.
The Schellenger family has been vigilant but many victims’ families do not have the ability or the resources to keep such a close check on the system. White’s case is being watched, yet probation requirements are being treated as mere suggestions. One shudders to think about how the Philadelphia system handles these issues when no one is watching.
When the justice system jails suspects waiting for trial or releases them on bail — with strict conditions such as regular meetings with a probation officer, going to work, staying away from convicted felons — the intent is, among other things, to protect society from additional crimes. But White had charges pending for a previous arrest when he took Schellenger’s life. Similarly, two men — the suspected gunman who recently shot an 11-month-old baby four times in Philadelphia and who provided the weapon to the suspect who shot and killed a toddler — were also out on bail and had extensive criminal records.
A pattern has emerged in Philadelphia — the criminals are winning and our municipal government is complicit in their takeover of this city. Mayor Kenney recently said, “You feel like you’re making progress in this city and [violence] happens … and you just feel like you’re losing, losing ground.”
Kenney has a warped definition of the word “progress.” When criminals out on bail continue to kill, we have succumbed to evil and anarchy. Rather than allow our municipal leaders to passively pretend these things just happen and to spout platitudes about their feelings, Philadelphians should hold those in power accountable —- and not stop until the rule of law triumphs.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and one of the co-founders of Broad + Liberty.