Jury selection underway in ‘Baby Kate’ murder trial

Murder trial five years in the making must wait one more day

Baby Kate, Sean Phillips
Sean Phillips in court on Sept. 26, 2016 as the jury was selected in his murder trial connected to the death of his daughter, Baby Kate. (Sept. 26, 2016)

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — Baby Kate disappeared June 28, 2011. The 4-month-old’s body has never been found and there is virtually no physical evidence in the case.

was last seen with her father, Sean Phillips. He has consistently denied that he had anything to do with her death, despite a letter he allegedly wrote to her mother in which he said he threw the car seat she was riding in and she stopped breathing.

Phillips, 26, of Ludington, is already serving a 10- to 15-year sentence for the unlawful imprisonment of his daughter. Now, he faces a charge of open murder in her death. The jury, once chosen, can find Phillips guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence without parole; guilty of second-degree, non-premediated murder; or not guilty.

Monday, Phillips seemed relaxed but attentive as jury selection dragged on. His mother was seated near him in the courtroom. She and Phillips’s father are expected to have to testify. Also expected to testify is Baby Kate’s mother, Ariel Courtland.

Kate Phillips. (Undated courtesy photo)
Kate Phillips. (Undated courtesy photo)

This case has been highly publicized — including being featured on the Nancy Grace program — so jury selection was meticulous to weed out those who may have prior knowledge that could taint their objectivity. In a highly unusual move, Judge Peter Wadel questioned jurors individually in chambers with Phillips and the attorneys present. Court rules normally call for this to be done in open court unless the juror requests a private hearing, which they did not.

Questions for potential jurors are approved by attorneys on both sides. In this case, they were questioned to make sure they understand Phillips is innocent until proven guilty. There were also a number of instructions that seemed to be lowering expectations for what evidence would be produced. Wadel asked potential jurors if they could set aside the “forensic magic” they see on TV crime shows.

Wadel himself has been a subject of controversy in the case. He was a district court judge in 2014 when the prosecution sought to have the case bound over to circuit court for trial. Wadel ruled there was not enough evidence, saying the prosecution had failed to prove Kate was dead. The prosecution appealed to the circuit court and that judge overruled Wadel, reinstating the murder charge. But then, Wadel was elected to the very judgeship that would oversee Phillips’ trial. The prosecution appealed to have him removed from the case. In 2015, higher courts found that with the new evidence introduced, Wadel could be trusted to oversee the case despite his previous ruling.

Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola is serving as de facto second chair in the case, which is being overseen by Assistant State Attorney General Donna Pendergast. She is an expert in cases where there is no body. She famously prosecuted Holland’s 1979 Janet Chandler murder in 2007 and has experience in at least two high-profile “no body” cases out of the Detroit area.

On the defense’s side, court-appointed attorney David Glancy of Ludington has recruited former Berrien County prosecutor, U.S. attorney, Reagan federal judge appointee and GOP candidate for Michigan attorney general John Smietanka. He was defeated by Democrats in his attempts to be a federal judge and AG. Also at the defense table is former FBI agent-turned-private eye Eugene Debbaudt. He is famous for cracking the murder of millionaire developer Robert Fryling a decade ago.

Also Monday, the prosecution learned that one of their experts would not be allowed to testify.

Additionally, the defense reportedly tried to get a deal for manslaughter, which the prosecution rejected.

The hope is that jury selection will wrap up early Tuesday so open statements and witness testimony can begin. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

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