Jury in ‘Baby Kate’ murder trial raises questions during deliberations

Sean Phillips last seen with 4-month-old Katherine Phillips in June 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) — The second day of deliberations in the murder trial of Sean Phillips brought questions from the jurors.

Phillips is charged with open murder in the case of his 4-month-old daughter, Katherine Phillips. The infant who became known as Baby Kate after she vanished in June 2011, was last seen alive with her father in Ludington.

Thursday morning, the jury of seven men and seven women was brought into the courtroom where Judge Peter Wadel told them he could not answer their earlier question and they would have to figure it out for themselves.

Wadel broke from courtroom tradition and did not read the question or say what it was in open court.

Ludington court jury box
The empty seats of the jurors selected for the Sean Phillips murder trial. (Oct. 12, 2016)

The jury also watched some video in the jury room, but the court would not disclose what they watched.

When asked why they can’t say what is going on, lawyers said “well, it’s a high profile case.”

Since Baby Kate’s remains have not been found, much of the prosecution’s case against Phillips was based on circumstantial evidence, including a letter he allegedly wrote in prison in which he confessed that he pulled Kate’s car seat from his car and that she was thrown from it.

>>PDF: “Confession” letter allegedly from Phillips

Kate’s mom Ariel Courtland, Phillips’ parents and the defendant all wait in various locations in the tight quarters of this nearly 125-year-old courtroom for a jury to put an end to a case five years in the making.

The jury began deliberations Wednesday afternoon, after more than eight days of testimony, but broke for the night without reaching a verdict.

In closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Donna Pendergast called Phillips coldly calculating for stripping Baby Kate of her clothes, allegedly leaving her to the elements.

“How could there ever be enough justice for the unceremonious discarding of a baby thrown away like trash?” Pendergast said at the end of her address to the jury.

“Having baby clothes in your pocket does not prove death,” Glancy shot back during his closing argument.

Glancy said no individual piece of evidence proved Phillips murdered Baby Kate, and there is no evidence to show Kate’s injuries were not accidental, since her body has never been found.

“At best if you believe there was some act that Sean did that raises his culpability, it’s at most to an involuntary manslaughter, a gross negligence,” Glancy said.

Glancy focused on raising doubt about the case against Phillips, concentrating on statements and alleged actions of Kate’s mother, Ariel Courtland, that could be interpreted that she didn’t want to keep Kate either.

Ariel Courtland
Ariel Courtland takes the stand in Sean Phillips’ trial on Sept. 29, 2016.

“They haven’t proven a second-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. They haven’t proven a death beyond a reasonable doubt. And they haven’t proven that Sean knowingly created a situation where death or great bodily harm, that he knew that was going to happen,” said Glancy.

Glancy also said Phillips, whose phone was shut off after Kate went missing, often shut off his phone to avoid Courtland’s obsessive calling and texting.

“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 show, do not rise to the level of planning for or intending to kill the baby,” Wadel said.

The judge has had an oversized impact on this trial. With more than three decades on the bench, Wadel is a 69-year-old Notre Dame Law School graduate. Wadel was reelected to his final term in 2014, his age means he cannot run again and therefore does not face any concern about pleasing a constituency.

In 2011, he ruled state police breathalyzer tests were not reliable because police then did not include a margin of error with their readings. That decision would be reversed in 2015.

It was Wadel’s 2014 decision in Sean Phillip’s probable cause hearing that put the judge solidly in the spotlight here. He would conclude the prosecution failed to show that Baby Kate was dead by either accident or murder. That decision was overturned and then Wadel, as chief Mason County judge, appointed himself to oversee this circuit court trial.

The Attorney General’s Office tried to get Wadel removed last year, but the appellate court refused.

The AG tried again last week after it claimed at least an appearance of impropriety after Wadel met in private with a retired judge who had put forward a directed verdict in a no body murder case.The AG claimed that the retired judge told people he talked to Wadel about Phillips and that Wadel “saw things his way.”

Both judges would deny that happened.

Tuesday, Wadel acquitted Phillips of first-degree murder and allowed the jury to consider a manslaughter verdict. As a result, three options were on the table for the jury to consider: second-degree murder, manslaughter and not guilty, giving Phillips a chance of parole.

Wadel runs his court with autonomy with many aspects taking place behind closed doors, including the questioning of jurors. The judge justifies this saying there are logistical issues.

This is the judge that, if Phillips is found guilty, will decide on his sentence.

Jurors wrapped up deliberations Thursday around 6 p.m. They’ll be back at it Friday.