Judge to stay on ‘Baby Kate’ murder trial after motion to disqualify

Mason County Judge Peter Wadel in court on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.
Mason County Judge Peter Wadel in court on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — The judge said he will not recuse himself from the murder trial of Sean Phillips after Assistant Attorney General William Rollstin filed a motion Wednesday to have him disqualified.

According to Rollstin, last week retired Judge Terrence Thomas came into court and implied to several people that Mason County Judge Peter Wadel was leaning towards acquittal. Wadel allegedly told Thomas in private that circumstantial cases, like the Phillips case, are fundamentally flawed. Thomas told people that Wadel agreed with him, inferring that the judge was adverse to “no body” cases.

Thomas, who was a Newaygo County judge for 36 years before retiring in 2015, had no official involvement in the case until now. In 2013, Thomas dismissed murder charges against Mark Coulier in the middle trial. It was a cold case with no body.

Rollstin was careful not to accuse Wadel of wrongdoing, but placed the blame at the feet of Thomas. He said that Thomas’ statement to attorneys and police call the court’s objectivity into question. He went on to say that public perception is at stake and the court’s integrity is challenged by the appearance of impropriety.

Phillips’ defense team argued against the dismissal of Judge Wadel, saying there is no proof the judges discussed the case.

Rollstin pointed to a series of events laid out in a 45-page motion. The court would not provide a copy of the motion, but 24 Hour News 8 got one from the Attorney General’s Office in Lansing.

The claim is that Thomas came to the courthouse last week and told anyone who would listen that he had a similar case that he dismissed and that he was going to talk to Wadel about his thoughts on the case.

After it was done, Thomas allegedly said that Wadel, saw things his way, according to Rollstin.

Another strange connection is that Grand Rapids Attorney John Smietinka, part of the Phillips defense team, was the attorney in the case that Thomas threw out.

After adjourning the court Wednesday afternoon, Wadel determined the courts have affirmed his remaining on the case. He said Rollstin waited until after three and a half days of testimony to ask again for a disqualification when court rules ask for a speedy request.

Wadel said he didn’t talk to Thomas about the case and if he had, he would have recused himself. He said he hasn’t seen Thomas since his retirement party in 2014 before Thursday when they only talked about his health.

Prosecutors originally didn’t want Judge Wadel to hear the case in circuit court because he was the judge who initially threw out the murder charge against Phillips. After a series of appeals, it was decided that Wadel could hear the case.

Phillips is charged with open murder in the death of his four-month-old daughter Katherine, dubbed Baby Kate, who was last seen alive with him in June 2011. Sean Phillips is already serving a prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment in her disappearance.