Jury finds Sean Phillips guilty of second-degree murder

4-month-old Katherine Phillips was last seen with Sean Phillips in June 2011

Sean Phillips and Katherine Phillips
Sean Phillips (left) appears in court Oct. 4, 2016 for his trial in the murder of Baby Kate (right).

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — More than five years after Katherine Phillips disappeared from Ludington, a jury has reached a decision about whether her father is responsible for her death.

Around 7 p.m. Friday, the jury found Phillips guilty of second-degree murder in the death of his daughter Katherine Phillips. After more than eight days of testimony, it took the group of jurors around 22 hours of deliberating before coming to a decision. Phillips faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

>>App users: Click here to watch the verdict

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

Four-month-old Katherine Phillips, who became known as Baby Kate after she vanished in June 2011, was last seen alive with her father in Ludington. Her remains have not been found.

After the jury announced its verdict, police said to the media that the case will never be truly finished until Baby Kate’s body is found.

“Now is the time for Mr. Phillips to explain where Katherine is. There is absolutely no reason in the world to keep that secret. Her mother is due that, his parents are due that, this community is due that and for that not to be disclosed at this point would be a travesty,” Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett said.

Baby Kate’s mother, Ariel Courtland, was in court for most of the trial in which she testified but she was not present for the verdict. Baby Kate’s grandmother and Phillips’ grandmother were both in the courtroom Friday, wiping away tears as the verdict was announced.

“There are no winners, but it is justice for Baby Kate — if there is such a thing — and it’s time for her to rest and that is what it’s all about,” Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said Friday night.

Since her 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

“His own words in the letter alone give you second-degree murder,” Pendergast said.

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.

Judge Peter 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.

“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.

Sean Phillips' muddy shoes
Retired Ludington Police Department Sgt. Matt McMellen holds up a once muddy shoe taken from Phillips’ bedroom.

In eight days of testimony, jurors heard from Courtland; Phillips’ mother, Kim Phillips; officers who spoke with Phillips on the day Kate disappeared; Phillips’ neighbors; experts in DNA, cellphones and computers; and a man who was in prison with Phillips and said he admitted to getting rid of Kate.

Phillips is already serving between 10 and 15 years in prison for his 2012 conviction of unlawful imprisonment of Baby Kate.