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Unreasonable Belief Killings and Minding Your Own Business

October 17th, 2019

The Michael White trial out of Philadelphia is not the first time I’ve seen the new Philly DA reduce or refuse to prosecute* on a self-defense case. Interestingly, here, the DA only proceeded to trial on voluntary manslaughter, which is colloquially known as an “unreasonable belief” killing. The DA is putting his eggs into the basket of disproving only one aspect of self-defense, namely, that White’s belief was unreasonable that he was in imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death when he stabbed Schellenger.

White testified two days ago at trial and lays out the following version:

See https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2019/10/15/suspect-michael-white-stand-rittenhouse-square-stabbing-sean-schellenger/ (last accessed 10/17/2019).

If it is true that Schellenger lifted White off the ground, the question becomes whether Schellenger was capable of causing serious bodily injury or death given that form of attack. Disparity of size and strength will come into play here, but once you are locked up and off the ground, you are very much at the mercy of your attacker. I would not say the belief that you are in imminent danger is unreasonable at that point, but the jury will have to decide that.

An unreasonable belief killing focuses, not surprisingly, on reasonableness.

In other words, the DA is arguing that White’s subjective belief was not objectively reasonable. I’m not aware of any case law that says the DA concedes it can’t disprove the other elements of self-defense to make the case for voluntary. But as I mentioned, it is very much a throwing his eggs in the “disproving reasonableness” basket.

I actually think there may be more to disproving the element of “provoking or continuing the difficulty which lead to the use of deadly force” under Section 505(b)(2)(i). Though I admit it also has some problems with proving White inserted himself into this altercation “with the intent of causing death or serious bodily injury” on Schellenger. I don’t know all the facts, so I can’t say, but the unreasonableness aspect does not seem like a good way to proceed, in my opinion.

White’s case is yet another example of deciding what types of incidents you will involve yourself in and being prepared for the consequences. I cannot imagine that White thinks that what was probably meant to be a casual “hey, buddy, back off” comment to Schellenger is now worth it as he sits in trial for voluntary manslaughter. The jury is deliberating as I write this. So we will also soon find out. UPDATE: The jury found White not guilty.

* As an aside, I ran the video of this cell phone store shooting by three DA’s out here in the sticks of PA who said they would’ve absolutely filed charges. All were concerned about the emptying of the magazine after the robber was down. One at least conceded she may have dropped charges if the employee agreed to be interviewed (with counsel present) and explain what was going through his mind as he emptied the magazine on the downed assailant. I note this only because three prosecutors in a relatively gun friendly county saw this video vastly differently than Philadelphia prosecutors.

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