Man sentenced to 20 years for St. Paul woman’s 1987 killing

Published 9:54 pm Wednesday, October 31, 2018

ST. PAUL — A judge sentenced a man to 20 years in prison Tuesday for strangling an 81-year-old former “Ziegfeld Follies” dancer while burglarizing her St. Paul home more than 30 years ago.

Michael Withers, 60, was sentenced after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in a plea deal last month in the 1987 death of Lilian Kuller. Withers was given credit for time served since he was charged in Kuller’s death in March 2017.

At Tuesday’s sentencing, Winters criticized the judge and prosecutor’s office for turning his case into what he dubbed a “media circus” for their own political gain after the judge allowed reporters to video record the hearing, according to a press release.

After the hearing, Kuller’s family said Withers’ claims were inaccurate, callous and disappointing.

“How can you not look us in the face or tell us why or that you’re sorry or remorseful?” asked Kuller’s grandson, Mark Kuller.

A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision allows cameras inside courtrooms during sentencing hearings under certain conditions. Mark Kuller and his relatives agreed to allow cameras into the hearing to tell their grandmother’s story and bring attention to funding cold case investigations.

Authorities finally tied Withers to the crime last year after additional DNA testing was done on Kuller’s fingernails.

Withers’ sister, Dianne Binns, who serves as the head of St. Paul’s NAACP, said after the hearing that she too was skeptical of the court’s motives.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office released a statement Tuesday saying DNA evidence tied Withers to the crime and that state law allows cameras in courtrooms during “specific hearings such as this one.”

While Withers did not apologize at sentencing, his public defender, Katherine Conners, said afterward that Withers was sorry for what he did.

“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,” Conners said.

Lilian Kuller was born in Chicago and joined the “Ziegfeld Follies” 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.