First-degree murder no longer an option in Baby Kate trial

Sean Phillips accused of murdering 'Baby Kate' in 2011

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) — Jurors will not be allowed to consider a verdict on first-degree murder in the trial of Sean Phillips, who is accused of killing his daughter, Katherine Phillips.

The 4-month-old, who was dubbed Baby Kate after disappearing in June 2011, was last seen alive with her father in Ludington. Her remains have not been recovered.

Phillips is charged with open murder, which covers both first- and second-degree murder. However, Judge Peter Wadel agreed with Phillips’ defense team that the case did not merit a charge of premeditated murder.

Judge Peter Wadel in Sean Phillips murder trial
Judge Peter Wadel explains why he won’t allow a first-degree murder charge in the trial of Sean Phillips. (Oct. 11, 2016)

“The mere fact that a lot of young people have an unwanted pregnancy, an unplanned pregnancy and they consider things like abortion or adoption do not show, do not rise to the level of planning for or intending to kill the baby. I believe it’s a very common reaction to the uncertainties that go with having an unplanned pregnancy. So I don’t find that those facts support any elements of first degree murder, and simply “going dark,” if you will, for two hours does not show the requisite intent, premeditation of the victim’s death, deliberation of the victim’s death. And therefore I enter a directed verdict of acquittal on first degree premeditated murder. I decline your motion, deny your motion on second-degree murder; that will go to the jury,” Wadel said Tuesday.

The ruling means when the jury deliberates, they may only consider whether Phillips is guilty of second-degree murder, which does not include premeditation and allows for parole.

Wadel’s decision came after testimony wrapped up for the day and the defense requested the judge throw out the case based on lack of evidence that a crime was committed or lack of proof that the alleged crime happened in the court’s jurisdiction.

“Finding nothing doesn’t prove something,” defense attorney David Glancy told Wadel. “We have, at most, manslaughter, not murder.”

Wadel previously tossed this case for lack of evidence. But he decided Tuesday the issues raised by Glancy should be decided by the jury.


Glancy is fighting to give the jury the option of finding his client guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

“I believe that’s the only issue that should go in front of the jury is whether or not this was a manslaughter or it was an accident,” he told the judge.

Sean Phillips murder trial
Sean Phillips sits next to his attorneys during the third week of his murder trial . (Oct. 11, 2016)

Phillips is in the fourth year of a 10- to 15-year sentence for the unlawful imprisonment of Baby Kate. If Glancy has his way, that sentence might not be much longer if a jury can find his client guilty of manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

A manslaughter conviction would mean Phillips was responsible for Baby Kate’s death, but it was done at the spur of the moment and there was no intent to kill.

“Nothing they have found or put forth supports the finding beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a death or that there was a premeditated murder or that there was even an attempt to kill,” Glancy said.

He has also said that there is really no definitive proof that Kate is dead.

That contention was rejected by the attorney leading the prosecution, Assistant State Attorney General Donna Pendergast, who is already facing a jury that can’t consider her most serious charge. She pointed to the letter Phillips allegedly wrote in prison in which he said that he threw Kate out of her car seat and then he left her in peaceful place.

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)

>>PDF: Jail letter allegedly from Sean Phillips

She’s also relying on testimony from a fellow inmate who claimed Phillips told him that he got rid of a baby and she would never be found.

“There is in fact sufficient opportunity for the defendant to think twice about what he was going to do,” Pendergast said.

The judge did not mention manslaughter when going over instructions Tuesday afternoon, but the defense told 24 Hour News 8 they are confident that involuntary manslaughter will be an option for the jury.


The final witness called this morning was Detective Tom Posma, who was the lead investigator in the case. Posma said Kate’s clothes, which were found inside Sean Phillips’ pocket, were inside-out, suggesting they were pulled off the child. He also described meticulous steps police took to try to find her, saying officers spent days sifting through garbage and searching woods and fields.

Pendergast then rested her case. She had previously called to the stand Kate’s mother, Ariel Courtland; Phillips’ mother, Kim Phillips; officers who spoke with Phillips on the day Kate disappeared; Phillips’ neighbors; and experts in DNA, cellphones and computers; among others.

The defense still hasn’t closed its case, meaning there is the remote possibility that Sean Phillips could take the stand in his own defense.

Barring any more unforeseen developments, the jury should begin deliberations Wednesday following closing statements from attorneys.