On Tuesday, an individual who violated the terms of his probation was quietly asked by the judge to promise not to do it again. And he was free to go on his way. That was it.
Does that make you a little uneasy? It should. According to a May 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, 83 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested again at least once during the nine years that followed.
On Nov. 19, Michael White, who stabbed Sean Schellenger in the back on July 12, 2018, resulting in his immediate death, appeared in a Philadelphia courtroom for a probation violation proceeding. As Broad + Liberty has chronicled, many believe that White essentially got away with murder because the District Attorney’s Office methodically reduced the charges against him. His only conviction in connection with Schellenger’s death was for tampering with evidence.
One might think White would be thankful he escaped harsh punishment and do his best to stay on the right side of the law. Or, sadly, since this is Philadelphia, one might wonder if the system has his back.
Consider what happened at his hearing, according to Sean’s mother, Linda Schellenger, and others who were in attendance:
White’s probation officer testified that she was clear with White on the requirements of his probation. Despite that, she reported, he failed to comply and she listed the dates and specifics of his violations.
In response, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Voci asked the judge to revoke White’s bail, and even read from the transcript of the previous hearing when White’s attorney had claimed he was busy at work, which was later proven patently false.
Before her son’s death, Linda was generally supportive of criminal justice reform, thinking it meant giving nonviolent offenders a break. But now, if it means giving people permission to ignore the rules – to even kill with impunity — she wants none of it.
The judge then turned to White’s attorney and asked, “Did you lie?”
“I wouldn’t lie,” the attorney replied.
The judge then turned to White and gently asked him if he would comply with the terms of his probation going forward, to which White responded in the affirmative.
The hearing ended.
Imagine how Schellenger felt watching the man whom she believes got away with her son’s murder walk out of his hearing, not even being held accountable for probation violations. “How many times can [the system] stab us?” she asked me after the hearing.
Before her son’s death, Schellenger was generally supportive of criminal justice reform, thinking it meant giving nonviolent offenders a break. But now, if it means giving people permission to ignore the rules – to even kill with impunity — she wants none of it.
“Is Michael White, who stabbed my son in the back while he had charges pending for still unresolved crimes, an example of positive criminal justice reform?” she asks.
Schellenger’s friend Maureen Faulkner accompanied her to the hearing. Maureen has been fighting for justice for her husband, Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, since he was murdered in 1981 by Mumia Abu Jamal. Bonded in grief, Schellenger and Faulkner feel sick as they witness example after example of a system that seems to prefer the comfort of the criminals over the losses suffered by the victims and their families.
Schellenger wonders, does the public simply get fatigued about these stories? How do you keep a fire in the belly of those who want to make sure we are not abdicating our safety, well-being and city to an unchecked criminal element?
Michael White’s sentencing on his tampering with evidence conviction is now scheduled for Dec. 19. Will he do even a minute of time? The charges for the crimes he committed in November 2017 are still outstanding. Will he face consequences or will a judge simply ask him to start complying with the law and send him on his way?
Maureen Faulkner, Linda Schellenger and countless others wake every day to the harsh reality that their loved ones are gone forever. When elected officials, politicians and pundits talk about criminal justice reform, think about the victims and the ache in the hearts of those left behind. True reform would prioritize justice for victims over the comfort of those who had a hand in their death.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and one of the co-founders of Broad + Liberty.