Judge hands down carefully designed sentence for Sean Phillips

Sean Phillips arrives in court for his sentencing. (Dec. 9, 2016)

LUDINGTON, Mich. (WOOD) — More than five years after Baby Kate disappeared, her killer — her father — faced his fate. Sean Phillips will spend the next 19 to 45 years in prison.

But locked in the convicted murderers head is the location of Baby Kate, who has not been seen in 66 months.

Kate Phillips, Sean Phillips
Left: Undated courtesy photo of Kate Phillips. Right: Sean Phillips in court in April 2014.

But with this conviction, the hope that he will reveal that information diminishes.

Phillips was convicted by famed no body murder case prosecutor Assistant Attorney General Donna Pendergast of second-degree murder.

She showed the jury over a three-week trial a letter written by Phillips where he wrote to the baby’s mother that he left the child in a “peaceful place.” That is the only clue that is available about the location of the 4-month-old baby he clearly did not want.

Pendergast reckons the infant was stripped away by the elements.

Friday, in a Ludington courtroom, only Pendergast spoke for the baby.

Neither Sean Phillips nor mother Ariel Courtland made a statement or reacted visibly when the sentence was announced.

The courtroom was filled with police who were consumed by this investigation as well as members of the community impacted by this half-decade tragic mystery.

“You can’t say enough about the investigators these guys went down rabbit holes all across America trying to find answers and every corner they turned pointed right back to Sean Phillips,” said Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole. “We’re going to continue to try to find what happened with Baby Kate’s body and we won’t stop until we’ve chased that lead to the very end.”

Phillips’ parents sat near Courtland and the three chatted after the sentence where the judge announced the sentence of 19 to 45 years, a far cry from the 40 to 75 years asked for by the prosecution.

sean phillips
Sean Phillips arrives in court for his sentencing. (Dec. 9, 2016)

The sentence came from Mason County Judge Peter Wadel — a judge who had previously ruled that there was not enough evidence to send this case to a jury. Nevertheless, Wadel ended up pronouncing sentence on the man convicted of second-degree murder.

Attorney General Bill Schuette sent one of his best prosecutors to Ludington in October to secure the conviction of Sean Phillips, the father all signs pointed to as the killer of his daughter.

Pendergast wanted to see Sean Phillips convicted of first-degree murder which means life without parole. But Mason County Judge decided that only second-degree murder or manslaughter would be on the table.

The jury chose murder.

In court Friday, Pendergast asked the judge to throw the book at 27-year-old Phillips.

“The harm that the defendant has inflicted, not only on his family, not only on Ariel, but on this community as well should all be taken into account,” Pendergast said. “I would ask the court for 40 to 75 years.”

Defense attorney David Glancy saw things differently.

“We have a young individual that when he does get out of prison that he can be a productive member of society, that he can be rehabilitated,” Glancy said.

Friday, the judge shaved several years off the sentencing guidelines intended to help a judge decide how much time to give a convict. He decided that the prosecution did not show that psychological trauma requiring professional help resulted from the murder.

“Ariel and you were still, truthfully, not fit to be parents,” Wadel said to Phillips. “I didn’t find anything in your history that shows that you are an aggressive person or a predatory person.”
The judge said he believes that Phillips did not set out in June of 2011 to kill his infant daughter.

“You were instantly appalled and remorseful at what had happened, I also believe that you simply didn’t know what to do,” the judge said of Phillips actions after he left Baby Kate in an undisclosed location.

Before handing down the sentence, the judge seemed to offer some sympathy for Phillips.

“Mr. Phillips, you’re not an evil person,” Wadel said. “You’ve demonstrated tremendous immaturity and that’s what led to this situation.”

While no one questioned whether the sentence was fair, they did object to the judge declaring the baby killer “not evil.”

“I don’t share the judge’s opinion,” said Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola.

“Everybody in this community was effected by what he did,” said Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett.

Phillips does get credit for the three years he has been in prison after he was arrested for murder, meaning he will spend at least 16 more years in prison.