Testifying in his own defense, Zahmir White told a Philadelphia jury on Wednesday that he shot 16-year-old William Bethel IV on South Street last Easter because “I was fearing for my life.”
White, now 19, contended that he saw a friend of Bethel’s trying to pull a gun out of his bookbag.
He said he first fired one shot into the ground, then fired three more shots. The last hit Bethel, a sophomore at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia High School, as he and his friend Christopher Elliott ran away on the 800 block of South Street.
The testimony was among the last evidence jurors heard before being asked to resolve if the late afternoon shooting among possibly rival teen groups was murder or not a crime at all.
“It wasn’t intentional. It was in self-defense," defense attorney Billy Ciancaglini told jurors in his closing argument.
Assistant District Attorney Adam Geer contended that White intended to shoot and kill Elliott, but hit Bethel. He told jurors in closing that the defense theory that Elliott had a gun was “nonsense.”
Geer also said the shooting didn’t meet any of the requirements of self-defense: White wasn’t in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury, was the one who provoked the shooting, and had a duty to retreat, but didn’t.
Evidence during the trial, which started Monday, indicated that White’s group had prior disputes with another South Philadelphia group that included Elliott.
But Bethel, who used to live in South Philadelphia and had friends there, had moved years earlier to Roxborough with his family. He had nothing to do with the altercations between the groups, Geer said.
White testified that he had a gun in his waistband that day because he had gotten shot at, but not hit, two weeks earlier at Third Street and Washington Avenue in a drive-by shooting. White, who was known by the nickname “Pikachu,” said that a few days later he saw one of Elliott’s friends, Khaleaf Sistrunk, mocking him on an Instagram video, saying, “Pik ran from gunshots,” then clapping.
So when he and a friend, Andre Thomas, passed Elliott and Bethel’s cousin, Samir Whitaker, on South Street that Easter, he testified, he thought to himself, “There’s going to be trouble.”
He testified that Elliott said to him, “What’s up,” and he replied, “What you mean, ‘What’s up?'” Then, he said, Sistrunk and Bethel exited from a storefront massage parlor, and Sistrunk repeated the refrain.
During the trial, witnesses on both sides testified that “What’s up” meant “let’s fight” or “trouble.”
Thomas, called to testify Wednesday by the defense, said it appeared that Elliott was reaching for a gun in his bookbag. White, in his testimony, said he saw half a gun in the bookbag.
Sistrunk and Whitaker, who both testified Tuesday, said no one in their group had a gun. They said that after they saw White pull out his gun, they ran into the massage parlor.
Bethel was shot in his lower back as he ran from the scene, and died two days later at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
White testified that after the shooting, he threw the gun away in a dumpster, then went to his mother’s home in West Philadelphia. He said the next day, he went to his aunt’s West Philly home, where he stayed until he was arrested May 23.