Via Facebook, here is a piece of MUST reading from our dear friend, Christine Flowers:
On Thursday evening last week, I was standing at the bus stop on 19th and Chestnut, blithely unaware that at that moment, someone was being stabbed to death a block and a half away. It never would have occurred to me to feel unsafe, even after 10:00 pm at night, because this was Rittenhouse Square and the worst that ever happened to me on Rittenhouse Square is an old man yelling at me for littering. Death is not expected in these leafy precincts.
Death came to Sean Shellenberger at 10:30 on Thursday, after he’d enjoyed a meal with friends at an outdoor table, facing the park. It was a balmy night, and I remember hoping that my air conditioner at home was working, and mentally deciding which cable news show I was going to watch before going to bed. Everything was, as everything always is on nights when death comes unexpectedly, exceptionally unexceptional.
The next morning, I read that Shellenberger had been stabbed to death by a person who had then fled across the park, in the direction of my bus stop. He’d left behind his bike, his backpack and a splattering of his victim’s blood on the pavement. Shock was replaced by horror, which was replaced by anger.
And then there was that televised news conference where the suspect, Michael White, turned himself in, and I thought this would progress like any other high profile killing in the city: mourning the victim, legal preliminaries for the alleged killer, arraignments and then some quiet until the case went to trial.
But from the very beginning, it wasn’t a normal case. The victim was a well-known real estate agent, loved and respected in his community. The suspect was a young college student, loved and respected in his community. They both, apparently, had promising futures, the first in development and the second in the performing arts. White has been called a “poet,” by his family, which I suppose is a way of saying he liked to write. His family says he was never involved with the law, even though he has an open rap sheet with weapons, theft, and drug charges. That information didn’t come out right away, but you can’t suppress public records for very long, particularly when they’re less than a year old.
And then the media started talking about the victim’s past brushes with the law, including a disorderly conduct conviction from 2009, burglary, criminal trespass and theft charges in 2001 and a dropped charge of battery in 2008.
You could see where this was going, as the narrative started to take shape. Sympathy was forming, like the clouds before a storm, for Michael White. There was a story about how, in the words of a family friend “He’s extremely depressed…he’s crying [and] doesn’t believe he’s in jail…he had to sleep on a table for 11 hours. They gave him a cheese sandwich and some water.”
It ended with this comment: “He doesn’t like the way he’s being treated.”
Sadly, no one could get a comment from Sean Shellenger.
I understand that everyone is entitled to a legal defense, and the presumption of innocence. That was drummed into me at law school, and by all the police procedurals I’ve watched on TV over the last thirty-some years. Facts need to be elicited, and reported fairly, and we can only make an assessment about guilt or innocence based on a full record.
But the insidious nature of the Rashomonic world in which we live, where everyone can create their own desired reality by omitting or condensing or reshaping certain facts, allows us to spin stories over the bodies of dead people, who can no longer speak for themselves.
The supporters of Michael White are understandably concerned with making him seem like the type of person who would never kill a man. He is a poet, a student, a son, sweet-natured, never in trouble before. The fact that this isn’t entirely true doesn’t matter. There are enough clouds gathered to make it plausible.
Similarly, Shellenberger, on whom no weapon was found and who is forever stopped from giving his own version of Thursday night’s fatal reality, is ascribed qualities that fit with White’s growing narrative of “self-defense.”
I don’t know what happened. But I do know that until we have the facts, I don’t give a damn if Michael White is upset at the treatment he’s getting. At least he still has the ability to complain.