Judge denies AG request to dismiss himself from Baby Kate case.

October 5, 2016
Michigan First Attorney General William Rollstin testifying in front of Judge Peter Wadel.

Michigan First Attorney General William Rollstin testifying in front of Judge Peter Wadel.

Judge denies AG request to dismiss himself from Baby Kate case.

#BabyKate

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Judge Peter Wadel denied the Michigan Attorney General’s request for him to dismiss himself from the 51st Circuit Court murder case against Sean Michael Phillips.

On Wednesday afternoon, Michigan First Attorney General William Rollstin, the state’s second highest ranking attorney, appeared in front of Judge Wadel stating that the comments of a retired judge made last week in the Mason County Courthouse, have given the appearance of impropriety, which is justification for the judge to step down.

Sean Phillips is on trial for the murder of his 4-month-old daughter, Katherine “Baby Kate” Phillips in June 2011.

On Thursday, Sept. 29, the second day of deliberations in the trial, Judge Terrance Thomas, retired 27th Circuit Court judge (which covers Oceana and Newaygo counties), came into the courtroom during a lunch break. At that time, court reporter Karla McLouth, was seated at her station and prosecutor Donna Pendergast, of the Michigan Attorney General’s office, was seated at the prosecution table.

Judge Thomas walked into the courtroom, approached McLouth stated: “I need to see Pete”, referring to Judge Wadel. According to Rollstin, Thomas then turned to Pendergast and stated, “You’d be hard pressed to pull this one out of the bag.”

Rollstin said Judge Thomas and Pendergast had never met before.

From there, according to Rollstin, Thomas met in chambers with Judge Wadel. He then later came out into the courtroom which was then occupied by two of the members of the defense team, not lead attorney David Glancy, and Mason County Sheriff Det. Michael Kenney.

“Detective Kenney hears retired Judge Thomas say to the members of the defense team, ‘I just had a couple of minutes with Pete and he sees it the same way I do.’”

Rollstin said Thomas has been made comments in the past that he does not have respect for the attorney general’s office.

Thomas was later interviewed by Det. Kenney and Ludington Police Officer J.B. Wells in the commissioners’ chambers. Rollstin and Glancy both read segments of the 35-page transcript of the interview.

Glancy said the whole argument is based on the comments and opinions of a retired judge and that the same conversation could have taken place at a local restaurant and would not have been considered inappropriate.

“All we have is speculation as to why Judge Thomas was here,” Glancy said. “They (the attorney general’s office) is trying to say that (Judge Thomas) intentionally came up here to interject himself into the case. We don’t have any evidence of that.”

Judge Wadel is the 79th District Court judge and the chief judge in Mason County. The case is not being tried by 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski because of a conflict of interest in the case, which is the same reason why Mason County Probate Court Judge Jeffrey Nellis is also not overseeing the case.

During Phillips’ probable cause hearing for the murder charges, Wadel dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence to try it. Judge Richard Cooper, who was then the 51st Circuit Court judge, overturned Wadel’s ruling at the request of the prosecution. The defense’s appeals were also overturned.

After a short recess, Wadel come back out on the record and stated that he had no prior knowledge of Judge Thomas’ comments before or after the two justices met.

“He was in my chambers less than five minutes,” Wadel said, calling the visit a courtesy between two colleagues. Wadel said he had not invited Thomas to the courthouse and the only topic of conversation was Thomas’ health. Wadel said he had asked Thomas about his health because the retired judge has throat cancer.

“This is the second time the prosecution has attempted to remove me from this case,” Wadel said, referring to Judge Cooper’s overturning Wadel’s probable cause ruling.

Wadel said the Michigan Supreme Court eventually ruled that Wadel was qualified to preside over the case, even though he had denied the case be bound over to circuit court following the probable cause hearing.

Wadel said the last time he had seen Thomas, prior to Thursday, Sept. 29, was during Thomas’ retirement party two years ago. He said that prior to that he did discuss the Phillips case once with Thomas when Wadel was concerned about defense attorney Glancy’s lack of experience with criminal cases. Wadel had consulted with Thomas about retaining Oceana County court’s public defender.

“My problem is that someone else created the appearance of impropriety. I did not,” Wadel said. “For these reasons, now that I have fully exposed everything about this matter, I am denying this motion.”

When asked if he had any further questions about the matter, attorney Rollstin said no.

Testimony has now resumed in the case that is scheduled to last until next Friday.

Phillips is currently serving a 10 to 15 year sentence for unlawful imprisonment (kidnapping) of Katherine, who has not been seen since June 29, 2011.

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