Sean Schellenger died at the hand of Michael White on July 12, 2018. After Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner systematically reduced the charges against White, leaving the jury with limited choice, he was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter but found guilty of tampering with evidence.
Before White became a cause celebre of Krasner and fans of progressive criminal justice reform, he was a young man who had been arrested in Philadelphia in November 2017 for theft, receiving stolen property, possessing an instrument of crime and possession of marijuana. He was free on his own recognizance that July evening, promising to show up in court for his outstanding charges, when he got off his bicycle in Rittenhouse Square and inserted himself in an argument with complete strangers. Tragically, in full view of many witnesses, he plunged a huge knife in the back of Schellenger, a man he had never met before that night, killing him almost immediately. White then ran and hid both himself and the weapon.
We have featured the Schellenger case several times on Broad + Liberty — you can read about it here, here and here. The Schellenger family tells a story of a district attorney who consistently advocated for the defendant in the case, rather than aggressively prosecuting the crimes on behalf of the people of Philadelphia. Notably, White’s charges stemming from the November 17, 2017 incidents, for which he was freed without posting bail, remain outstanding to this day.
The Schellenger family tells a story of a district attorney who consistently advocated for the defendant in the case, rather than aggressively prosecuting the crimes on behalf of the people of Philadelphia.
White is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 9 for the tampering with evidence conviction. His attorneys filed a motion requesting that the Schellenger family be denied the ability to speak at sentencing. White’s lawyers claimed, and the judge agreed, that because White was convicted only of tampering with evidence, that crime had no effect on the Schellengers. So, what they think, feel or lost is irrelevant.
Families of deceased victims usually have the right to make a statement in open court. It lets them talk about their loved one and their loss. This provides a chance for closure, to confront the defendant with the consequences of his or her actions, define the severity of their loss and tell the world about their loved one. In American jurisprudence, victim impact statements are a relatively new phenomenon.
Our Constitution enshrines rights for the defendants, not the victims. Victims and their families rely on the prosecutor, the judge and the jury for justice. In the 1980s, the mother of Sharon Tate, a murder victim of the Charles Manson family, pushed for the opportunity to make a statement when one of the killers became eligible for parole and the practice of impact statements began to spread. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the admission of these types of statements was constitutional.
White was not convicted of killing Schellenger so, in this case, there will be no victim impact statement. White will not hear that Sean Schellenger was born to Linda, a teenage mom and high school dropout with few resources and an uncertain future. Linda became inspired by her happy, handsome baby boy, who became, as she tells it, the wind beneath her wings. Caring for him encouraged her to return to school, obtain an education and show Sean the value of hard work. White will not hear how Mark Schellenger fell in love with both Linda and her son, marrying her when Sean was 8, raising him as his own. Mark and Linda then had another son, Justin, who became Sean’s lifelong best friend and biggest fan.
White will not hear that while Sean was a stranger to him when he plunged the knife deep into his back, Sean was a son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin and friend. He will not hear that this man, whose life was cut short at 37, inspired countless people with his selflessness. At Sean’s celebration of life, which more than a thousand people attended, his friends spoke of a man who brought joy to many and had a special place in his heart for those down on their luck, stopping to chat with people living on the streets of Philadelphia, offering them both conversation and a few bucks for their next meal. His loved ones spoke of a man who never judged anyone – and had close friends of every race, religion and creed. Sean constantly reminded his family and friends that you never know what is going on in other’s lives — and you should always have empathy and compassion. His generosity led him to begin a charity, Sean’s Helping Hands, whose mission is to improve urban communities.
White will never hear how Sean believed in second chances — and how his successful Philadelphia real estate development firm, Streamline, often hired former prisoners or addicts — providing people with opportunities that might not otherwise be available to those with a criminal record. Ironically, White is just the type of young man that Sean spent his free time helping.
Ironically, White is just the type of young man that Sean spent his free time helping.
White will not hear how Sean’s family and friends miss him every day — and have now celebrated birthdays, holidays and other milestones with a hole in their hearts. He will not hear about Linda’s pain. Sean called his mother her every day – and the thought of his contagious smile and joy of life is never far from her mind.
Victim statements rarely make a difference at sentencing. Judges generally follow guidelines and the eloquence of the victim’s family seldom changes that decision. The Schellengers never thought that anything they said would alter White’s sentence. They just wanted a chance to stand up in public and talk about their pain. They wanted a voice, one small show of strength in a process they have no control over.
That voice, like Sean’s, has been silenced forever, sacrificed in DA Krasner’s quest for so-called criminal justice reform. Philadelphians, do you understand the impact of progressive criminal justice policies?
Watch Broad + Liberty’s interviews with Linda Schellenger here, here and here. Broad + Liberty reached out to D.A. Larry Krasner, offering him the opportunity to be interviewed and present his thoughts on how victim’s families are treated in Philadelphia. He did not respond.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and one of the co-founders of Broad + Liberty.
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