A serial burglar who strangled a widowed grandmother in her St. Paul home more than 30 years ago accused the judge and prosecutor at his sentencing Tuesday of turning his case into a "media circus" for their own political gain.
Michael Withers, 60, offered no apology to Lillian Kuller's family as they sat in stunned silence in the courtroom gallery, clutching black and white photos of their grandmother, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer. He expressed no remorse for his actions even though just moments before, his attorney told the court that he was the most "kind," "grateful" and "polite" client she had ever worked with.
"You and the [county attorney] made it about you and what you hope to gain in the future…," Withers said. "P.S. judge, are you looking for reappointment next year to the bench?"
Withers' only comment about Kuller, 81, was to say the case was about her and her family "to a point." He continued with his allegations, asking Ramsey County District Court Judge Robyn Millenacker whether she and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi were seeking higher office. Both Millenacker and Choi are running for re-election.
Withers pleaded guilty in September to second-degree murder without intent and agreed to a prison sentence of 20 years, which was handed down Tuesday morning. A count of second-degree murder with intent was dismissed. He is eligible for parole in about 13 years.
Withers' sister, Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, attended the sentencing and said afterward that she agreed with her brother's accusations.
"He's absolutely right," Binns said. "John Choi's looking to move on from county attorney, and the judge is probably looking on for her career also."
Withers didn't elaborate on his claims. A TV camera was allowed in the courtroom during his sentencing. The practice is governed by a Minnesota Supreme Court decision and Minnesota General Rules of Practice for the District Courts, and is allowed under certain conditions upon written requests filed by media outlets.
Binns said she believed her brother's comment about the "media circus" referred to the camera and the case in general. Authorities held a news conference in 2017 to announce the charges against Withers.
Kuller's grandchildren said afterward that they approved the camera, and wanted the sentencing to be publicly documented.
"I wanted to say to Mr. Withers: it has nothing to do with anybody running" for office, said her granddaughter, Harmony Kuller. "I think it has more to do with us expressing how we felt."
"We're the ones that agreed to do it," said her grandson, Mark Kuller. "We want to make sure to get the word out, to make sure that other cases are solved."
Her grandchildren said they had wanted an apology from Withers, and that his "callousness" in court was "quite upsetting."
"How can you not look us in the face, or, tell us why, or, that they're sorry or remorseful?" Mark Kuller said. "Just to say, 'Hey, I did something heinous a long time ago, but, you know, now I'm going to try to be a better human being and repent for what I did.'"
Choi's office released a brief statement saying it built the case against Withers based on DNA evidence and his criminal activity in the same neighborhood.
"Per Minnesota law, cameras are allowed [in] courtrooms during specific hearings such as this one," his office said.
Millenacker looked on in silence during Withers' brief but forcefully spoken address. She told Withers afterward that he had 13 prior felonies, nine of them involving burglaries or robberies.
"Ms. Kuller was an 81-year-old woman who was frail," Millenacker said. "She posed no threat to you."
Authorities believe that between the late night hours of Jan. 31 and the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 1987, Withers broke into Kuller's duplex in the 1200 block of Goodrich Avenue, where she lived alone, killed her and ransacked her home.
Mark Kuller said Tuesday that nothing was taken from her home, which was about a mile from where Withers lived at the time.
Police identified Withers in 1987 as a person of interest, but he eluded them even as he committed several burglaries within 2 miles of the crime scene. Two months after Kuller's murder, he broke into someone's home nearby and stabbed the resident with a screwdriver.
"Your behavior has been violent," Millenacker said. "It's been selfish. It's been greedy."
Kuller grew up in the Chicago area. As a teenager, Kuller, then Lillian Garmisa, danced professionally to help her parents feed their 13 children during the Depression. She danced on Broadway in the 1920s, and married Nate Kuller, whose family owned Minnesota Knitting Mills.