The People vs. Sean Michael Phillips.

October 12, 2016
Sean Michael Phillips

Sean Michael Phillips

The People vs. Sean Michael Phillips. 


An op/ed by Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Closing arguments have begun at the Mason County Courthouse in the 51st Circuit Court murder trial against Sean Michael Phillips, the 26-year-old Victory Township man who has been accused of murdering his 4-month-old daughter, Katherine Shelbie-Elizabeth Phillips, also known as Baby Kate, in June 2011.

Phillips has been incarcerated since the day Kate went missing, June 29, 2011. He has been in prison since June 5, 2012, the day he was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison in 51st Circuit Court by Judge Richard Cooper for the unlawful imprisonment (kidnapping) of Baby Kate. The earliest date he would get out of jail is June 29, 2021, he would be 31-years-old.

For the past 13 days, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, along with the Mason County Prosecutor’s Office, has argued its case of why Phillips should be convicted of the premeditated murder of Baby Kate. On Tuesday, Mason County Chief Judge Peter Wadel, who serves as 79th District Court judge — ruled that the prosecution has failed to present enough evidence to justify an open murder (or first degree) charge against Phillips and instructed the jury to now consider second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. 

This was Wadel’s stance during the probable cause hearing against Phillips in September 2014, when he denied binding the case over to circuit court for murder charges. The prosecution appealed and Wadel’s ruling was overruled by 51st Circuit Court Judge Richard Cooper, who has since retired. The defense appealed that decision but was overruled by the state appellant court.

The body of Katherine Phillips has never been found. Phillips has not spoken since his initial interview with Mason County Sheriff Detective Sgt. Tom Posma on June 29, 2011. At that time, Phillips insisted that the baby was with her mother, Ariel Courtland. But, investigators have never been able to find any evidence that would lead them to believe that Courtland was involved with the disappearance of the couple’s second child.

Believe what you want about Baby Kate’s mother, but it’s unlikely that you know more than the professionals who have investigated this case.

There are many who want to believe the child is still alive and was somehow sold to some mysterious baby black market. While that makes many feel better, the reality of that scenario is more of pure fiction that could be written into a made-for-television movie. It’s unrealistic. Tax payers in the US receive a considerable tax credit for adoption which, over time, pays back most of the expenses of the process. 

The case of Baby Kate has cost the taxpayers of Mason County thousands of dollars. It has occupied an enormous time of the county’s four police detectives (three from Mason County Sheriff’s Office and one from Ludington Police Department). It has involved investigators from the Michigan State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The case has received national publicity, including the Dr. Phil Show, when Dr. Phil discussed the unlikeliness that Phillips picked up the unbuckled carseat from his vehicle and threw the carseat, with Baby Kate in it, in the parking lot of Wendy’s restaurant in Pere Marquette Township. This was the scenario that was written about in the so-called confession letter that Courtland received months after Phillips was sent to prison. In that letter the author, who did not sign the letter, talks about how he (assuming it was Phillips) was angry after leaving Courtland’s apartment on Tinkham Avenue in Ludington and drove away to Wendy’s. He claims he didn’t realize that Courtland left the baby in the back of the car and that he was so angry that he picked up the car seat, which had to have weighed about 45 pounds with the baby in it, and threw it, killing the baby. 

The author then claims he took the baby and put her someplace “peaceful.”

The letter was circumstantial evidence, as was the plant materials found in Phillips’ shoes. That material tried to pinpoint where Phillips went after he left Courtland’s apartment and what he did for several hours — after he shut off his phone. Again, many hours of time from local law enforcement, local fire departments, and other volunteers, were spent searching areas of northwest Mason County for the remains of Baby Kate.

The evidence leads to the baby’s father, Sean Michael Phillips. When Phillips was located at his parents’ house on West Millerton Road in Victory Township, he had the baby’s clothes in his pocket. The carseat was in the trunk of the car, as was the diaper bag and Courtland’s phone. He went off the grid for several hours. While that’s circumstantial, it certainly adds up to murder.

But, the 12-person jury must decide that the prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, even for second degree murder.

Put your emotions aside. Could you convict beyond a reasonable doubt?

There are many who have commented on Facebook how “there are ways to make people talk.” Would you want someone to “make you talk” if you were accused of a crime? Is that the type of country you want to live in?

Katherine Shelbie-Elizabeth Phillips deserves justice. Someone is clearly guilty of being responsible for her disappearance, and most likely her death. However, a person is innocent until proven guilty. That is how the system works in this country and we all should be thankful for it. The defense has a job to protect the rights of the accused. It doesn’t matter if the defense believes its client is innocent or guilty. It just matters that every single person receives a fair trial.

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