Instead of apologizing, murderer in St. Paul cold case uses sentencing to blame judge, prosecutor for ‘media circus’
ST. PAUL -- Lillian Kuller’s family waited more than three decades for an apology from the man who strangled the former dancer while burglarizing her St. Paul home in the winter of 1987. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, they thought the moment had finally arrived.
It never did.
Instead of expressing remorse during his sentencing hearing inside a Ramsey County District courtroom, Michael Withers lambasted the judge and prosecutor’s office for turning his case into a “media circus” for their own political gain.
His remarks appeared aimed at the judge’s decision to allow video recordings of the proceedings. A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision allows cameras inside state courtrooms under certain conditions.
“I know what you are going to say, judge, so say it,” Withers stated when it was his turn to address the court. “It’s not about you and the (county attorney) but about the family and the victim, which is right, to a point. But you and the (county attorney) have made it about you and what you hope to gain in the future by your lack of empathy and integrity in this case as you both seek political favor by said actions today.”
Withers went on to point out that both Ramsey County District Judge Robyn Millenacker and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi are up for re-election in November.
Withers’ sister, Dianne Binns, who serves as the head of St. Paul’s NAACP, said afterward that she also was skeptical of the court’s motives.
Kuller’s family strongly disputed that assessment, saying afterward that Withers’ claims were not only inaccurate, but also callous and disappointing.
“To us, how can you not look us in the face or tell us why or that you’re sorry or remorseful,” said Mark Kuller, Kuller’s grandson. “He’s supposed to be on this path to righteousness … It just shows the type of person he really is.”
Further, Kuller and his relatives said allowing cameras into the proceeding helped widen the reach of their grandmother’s story and highlighted the need for funding cold case investigations.
New DNA evidence
More than 30 years after police found the 81-year-old Kuller strangled to death inside her home at 1290 Goodrich Avenue, authorities finally tied Withers to the crime last year after additional DNA testing was done on her fingernails.
Withers had a history of burglarizing east-metro homes at the time of her death. During his plea hearing last month, he said he planned to steal from Kuller when he showed up at her house during the winter of 1987 pretending to be a UPS man.
She went to get a pen to sign something, he said during his hearing, and when she came back and discovered him “prowling around,” a struggle ensued.
Withers said she started pushing him, so he grabbed her and threw her to ground. While the two were wrestling in a lower-level bedroom, Withers began strangling her, according to his version of the events.
He said he thought she was still alive when he left.
Kuller’s family accused Withers after that hearing of lying about what had happened, saying the only truthful part of his admission was when he confessed that “he killed her.”
Withers, now 60, pleaded guilty at the September hearing to one count of second-degree murder in Kuller’s death after reaching a plea deal that included dismissal of an intentional death charge.
Millenacker sentenced him to 20 years in prison Tuesday. Wither received credit for time already served since being charged in Kuller’s death in March of 2017.
‘No person is the worst thing they have ever done’
While Withers did not apologize at his sentencing, his attorney, public defender, Katherine Conners, said afterward that Withers was sorry for what he did.
“No person is the worst thing they have ever done and Michael has been the best client I have ever had,” Conners said. “He is unfailingly polite, kind, grateful … This is a crime from 30 years ago and … he has had a lot of time to reflect on things and I think he is happy that this is concluded and that the victim’s family has closure.”
She added that Withers intends to help others learn from his mistakes when he is eligible for release in about 11 years.
She declined to comment on whether she agreed with his assessment that the judge and prosecutor’s office used the case for political gain. But she did say she opposes cameras in the courtroom.
“It’s hard for people who don’t sit across the table from my clients everyday to see them as people … and to have that moment, or any moment during criminal proceedings on display so publicly I think is very denigrating and humiliating for my clients,” Conners said. She added that cameras also likely feel like an intrusion for victims.
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office declined to specifically address Withers’ comments but did release a statement Tuesday afternoon saying DNA evidence tied him to the crime and that cameras are allowed in courtrooms during “specific hearings such as this one.”
State policy changed to permit video and audio coverage of some district court proceedings following a Minnesota Supreme Court decision this past July.
The rules now presume cameras will be allowed at all hearings following guilty verdicts or guilty pleas unless certain exceptions apply. For example, no coverage is permitted of victims unless he or she agrees to it, and cameras aren’t allowed in drug, veteran or mental health court proceedings.
Good cause for exclusion includes when coverage threatens “the privacy, safety and well-being” of those involved, detracts from the “dignity of proceedings” or threatens justice, the rules continue.
Binns, the president of St. Paul’s NAACP, said she’s followed her brothers’ case since the beginning, and her support of him has never wavered.
She said she doesn’t believe the state’s case against him was impenetrable, adding that she suspects he took a plea deal after his DNA was linked to Kuller because he knew the odds were against him as a man of color in an unjust legal system.
“It’s not a fair playing-ground for people of color. You don’t have a jury of your peers,” Binns said.
She added that while he may have a lengthy history of burglary, murder is not in his character.
“My brother was a person that was a loving individual,” she said.
Binns also disagreed with the court’s decision to let cameras into her brother’s sentencing, reiterating his characterization of the event as a “media circus.”
“And this is an election year and so I guess I have to look at that also, and that played into it for him … But my big thing is the evidence,” she said.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office said it was both the DNA evidence as well as Withers’ criminal history in Kuller’s neighborhood around the time of her death that allowed prosecutors enough evidence to “establish probable cause, file charges and secure a guilty plea to 2nd Degree Murder in this tragic case after 30 years of silence.”
Victim was mother, grandmother, dancer
Kuller, a mother and grandmother, has been described as a vivacious and refined former “Ziegfeld Follies” dancer.
She was born in Chicago and joined the group as a chorus dancer.
She met her husband, Nate Kuller, backstage at one of her performances in the Twin Cities in the 1930s before moving to St. Paul.
The couple lived for four decades in the Goodrich Avenue house, where Kuller raised a son and daughter. Her husband died in 1981.
Her grandchildren carried pictures of her to Withers’ sentencing Tuesday.
“She was a spectacular women,” one of them said afterward.