Sean Phillips murder trial focuses on ‘confession letter’

Phillips charged with murder of 4-month-old daughter 'Baby Kate'

Sean Phillips and Katherine Phillips
Sean Phillips (left) appears in court Oct. 4, 2016 during his trial in the murder of his 4-month-old daughter, Katherine Phillips (right).

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — Prosecutors are turning their focus to the note and letter allegedly written by Sean Phillips in his trial for the murder of his 4-month-old daughter.

Katherine Phillips, dubbedBaby Kate,” was last seen alive with Sean Phillips in June 2011.

Thursday, the jury viewed a copy of the note found in Phillips’ pocket while he was in the Mason County jail a month after Kate’s disappearance.

John Long, a corrections deputy for the Mason County Sheriff’s Department, said he escorted Phillips to the shower facility and then watched as Phillips put his dirty clothes into a hamper. But after Phillips got to his cell he wanted to get a piece of paper.

Long refused to let him return but the guard went and got the paper out of Phillips’ pocket and made a copy of it. That note would claim that he took the baby to “a guy” who would bring Kate to a family wanting to adopt her.

But it was a note intercepted more than a year later by Craig Smith, a former employee at Ionia’s Michigan Reformatory that would become a main piece of evidence used to demonstrate what Phillips did, according to prosecutors.

“It appeared to be a confession letter,” Smith testified.

In the letter, Phillips said he was trying to move his seat when it was blocked by Kate’s car seat. He wrote he became angry, pulled out the seat roughly and Kate was thrown from the seat.

“I didn’t know. I’m so sorry,” Phillips wrote.

He went on to write “Held her for a long time. Seemed like forever. Maybe an hour, maybe a minute. Might not have been long. I can’t explain a lot. Some things can only be lived.” He also wrote that he panicked and did not get help. He denied that he left her in a swamp or a lake, but in a “peaceful place.”

>>PDF: Jail letter allegedly from Sean Phillips

A letter apparently from Sean Phillips to Ariel Courtland saying Baby Kate is dead. (July 2012)
A letter apparently from Sean Phillips to Ariel Courtland saying Baby Kate is dead. (July 2012)

The jail letter to Courtland is a key piece of evidence in the prosecution’s case, which is based largely on circumstantial evidence. Kate’s remains have not been found. But the attorney leading the prosecution, Assistant State Attorney General Donna Pendergast, is an expert in getting convictions in no-body murder cases.

A good chunk of Thursday’s testimony was also devoted to technical experts in DNA, cellphones and computers designed to show what Phillips was up to when Baby Kate disappeared in June of 2011.

Among the experts called by the prosecution Thursday was former Kentwood Police Department detective Gerald McCarthy, who is now a digital forensic analyst with Michigan State Police. He looked through computers seized from Phillips parents’ home as well as the computer belonging to Katherine’s mother, Ariel Courtland.

On Phillips’ computer, there were Google searches that included terms like giving up parental rights, adoptions, adoptions in New Mexico, surrendering and transferring parental rights and avoid paying child support, McCarthy testified. He said that the searches could have happened anytime since 2009.

On Courtland’s computer, McCarthy said there were also internet searches regarding adoptions. Courtland also looked at profiles of couples looking to adopt.

This testimony serves both defense and prosecution. It potentially shows Phillips looking to get rid of Kate, but it also shows that the baby’s mom was at least exploring the idea. Defense attorney David Glancy made sure the jury knew what wasn’t on the computer.

“Any searches on murder, hiding a body…,” Glancy said.

The last person to take the stand Thursday was MSP Detective Sgt. James McDonald who showed the jury the cellphone tower records of Phillips’ phone. In previous testimony, the jury was told Phillips turned his phone off just after Baby Kate disappeared.

These are the details necessary for the prosecution to make its circumstantial case designed to put Phillips behind bars for the rest of his life.

Phillips, 26, is already serving a prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment in Kate’s case.