Jury selection in Baby Kate murder trial heads into 3rd 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) — A jury has eluded the murder trial of Ludington’s “Baby Kate” for two days, which means selection will consume the first half of its first week.

More than 60 people have been excused so far as the court looks to fill 14 seats, two of which will be alternates. Wednesday morning, another group of potential jurors will be brought in for the time-consuming selection exercise. The court administrator told 24 Hour News 8 the pool includes 250 people, so she believes they will be able to seat a jury.

The exact reasons for the dismissals so far are not clear because Mason County Judge Peter Wadel has instated an unprecedented scheme that has each potential juror leave the courtroom and go to the judge’s chambers, along with the attorneys and defendant Sean Phillips, to be questioned.

24 Hour News 8’s Barton Deiters, who has reported on court cases for two decades, has never seen such a method used before. Usually, if a juror needs to be asked questions, it happens in public and the rest of the jury pool is removed.

However, Wadel said there isn’t room in his chambers for media and there are “logistical issues” to moving the jury pool in the small, century-old Mason County Courthouse.

When asked about the situation, attorneys say only that the judge wanted to do it this way.

Wadel said he is confident his actions are constitutional.

Dismissed jurors said they were told by the judge not to speak about what happened during questioning, but some said they were asked about whether they formed an opinion about the case.

Assuming a jury is picked Wednesday, which is not guaranteed, the members will hear a circumstantial case based on the facts that Sean Phillips, 26, was the last person seen with his daughter Kate and that he allegedly wrote a letter in prison to Kate’s mom in which he confessed to hurting the child.

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

According to prosecutors, Phillips took the girl from her mother in June 2011 without the authority to do so and kept the baby’s location secret. He also allegedly turned off his cellphone so he could not be tracked.

When Courtland testified in 2012, she said Phillips left with Kate in his car as she went inside her apartment building to get a stroller. Courtland claimed the couple had been arguing about Phillips’ insistence that Kate be put up for adoption. That was an hour after Phillips had taken a DNA test to confirm that he was the father.

Kate was never seen again and her body has never been found. Phillips continues to deny any involvement, even after he was convicted of her unlawful imprisonment three years ago and sentenced to between 10 and 15 years in prison.

Court documents show that when Courtland testifies in the murder trial, defense attorney David Glancy plans to impeach or discredit her testimony by introducing a handful of minor convictions she has accumulated since 2009. Wadel has ruled that all but one, an unlawful driving away of a vehicle conviction, can be used.

Courtland will certainly be a major component in the case that has been built by Assistant Attorney General Donna Pendergast, who is leading the prosecution.

Monday, it was revealed that Phillips’ defense team allegedly offered to plead to manslaughter, but the offer was rejected by the prosecution.

The trial is slated to last three weeks.

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