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A jury convicted a northern Michigan man of second-degree murder Friday evening in connection with the disappearance of his 4-month-old daughter. The jury deliberated about 22 hours before finding Sean Phillips guilty of killing Katherine Phillips, known as “Baby Kate.” The girl disappeared five years ago in the Ludington area about 80 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, but her body has never been found.
The judge on Tuesday said there wasn’t enough evidence for a first-degree murder charge, leaving the jury with lesser charges to consider. A second-degree murder conviction could carry a sentence of life or any term of years in prison, but allows for the possibility of parole. It wasn’t immediately clear when Phillips will be sentenced. Prosecutors said Phillips, 26, had a turbulent relationship with Kate’s mother and didn’t want the baby.
Kate “was a financial burden and an impediment to the defendant’s lifestyle,” Assistant Attorney General Donna Pendergast told jurors. A key piece of evidence was a note written to Kate’s mother, Ariel Courtland, by Phillips. He described how in a fit of anger Kate somehow was thrown from her car seat when he yanked the seat.
He wrote that he “held her for a long time” and that she was in a “peaceful place.” He didn’t elaborate. “A peaceful place? Out in the wild, so animals could eat her in the wild?” Pendergast said in court. “Babies don’t just end up naked in the woods. Someone has to put them there.”
Pendergast said Kate’s clothes were found with Phillips. She urged the jury in her closing argument Wednesday to see through the “cover-up.” Defense attorney David Glancy said the clothes, seeds and sand on Phillips’ shoes, and a two-hour gap in his cellphone use don’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kate was killed or that there was intent to kill.
“If you believe there was some act that Sean did that raises his culpability, it’s at most involuntary manslaughter, a gross negligence,” Glancy said. Phillips did not testify during the trial. He said nothing as he left the courthouse.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a statement saying the conviction followed a joint prosecution and multi-jurisdictional investigation by local, state and federal authorities. “Today’s conviction is a measure of justice for a child who will never grow up and a family that has been ripped apart by her murder,” Schuette said. Phillips currently is serving a 10-year prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment in the child’s disappearance.