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Michael Politte has served 22 years in a Missouri prison for murder. Experts say he’s innocent

Michael Politte, photographed Sept. 8 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, has never wavered in his claims of innocence.
Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Politte, photographed Sept. 8 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, has never wavered in his claims of innocence.

Michael Politte is serving a life sentence after a jury found he murdered his mother, Rita Politte, as a 14-year-old in Washington County, Missouri.

Almost two decades ago, Michael Politte was sentenced to life in prison for one of the most heinous crimes imaginable: beating his mother to death and then setting her body on fire.

But a growing body of evidence suggests not only that Politte, who was 14 at the time of the murder, didn’t do it — but that in a rush to judgment, law enforcement officials overlooked other possible suspects and ignored substantial evidence pointing to Politte’s innocence. They also relied on chemical analysis that was demonstrably false at the time of Politte’s trial. Their flawed analysis of his tennis shoes was the only physical evidence tying the teenager to the beating or the fire.

Jim Trainum, a former Washington, D.C., police officer with 27 years' experience, 17 as a homicide detective, examined the case file at the request of Politte’s attorneys. He was appalled by what he saw.

“They rushed in, they came to their conclusions too quickly, they cherry-picked their evidence, they didn’t document it very well, and then they used tactics during their interviews and interrogations that were very, very problematic,” Trainum told St. Louis on the Air. “Plus, when you add that to the scientific findings that turned out to be faulty, the whole investigation just falls apart.”

Now legal advocates and experts are calling for the Missouri Supreme Court to give the case the attention it deserves.

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Politte’s attorneys filed an appeal making the case for his innocence earlier this month. It was rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District less than a week later. But Megan Crane, co-director of the Missouri office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said the attorneys see the Missouri Supreme Court as their best avenue.

They plan to file there next week.

“What we're fighting for is that they'll appoint a special master who has the time to really dig in, and to read our over 100 pages of a petition and the hundreds of pages of exhibits supporting it,” Crane said. “And there is some precedent for this in Missouri, that these special masters have been appointed and that it leads to an evidentiary hearing.”

The Washington County prosecuting attorney at the time of Politte’s second-degree murder conviction, John Rupp, did not respond to numerous requests seeking comment. The current prosecuting attorney, Joshua Hedgecorth, was not part of the office at that time. He declined to comment.

As for Politte, he sat down with St. Louis on the Air for more than an hour in a visiting room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a wide-ranging interview for which neither Politte nor his attorneys put anything off-limits. Now 37, Politte has spent roughly two-thirds of his life behind bars.

He acknowledged that he could have gotten out long ago. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain in which he’d serve just 15 years. With credit for time served, he’d have been out in less than a decade.

He said he has never regretted turning down that offer.

“I’ll die in here,” he said. “I didn’t murder my mother. And she’s going to get her justice.”

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On Dec. 4, 1998, Michael Politte's friend Josh Sansoucie slept over.

Politte and his mom lived in a trailer in Hopewell, Missouri, about an hour and a half south of St. Louis. That evening, Rita Politte, who was then newly divorced, went to the bar with friends. She came home around 11 p.m. with sandwiches for Mike and Sansoucie. They ate while she checked her answering machine. Then she announced she was going to bed.

The boys both went to bed in Mike’s room not long after. The door was closed, the radio was on, and they’d smoked marijuana.

Perhaps that’s why they both have said it wasn’t a noise that woke them up just after 6 a.m. It was a smell. Smoke.

“It was a light haze. It reminded me of when my mom had burnt bacon — the way my room was filled with smoke, it reminded me of that,” Mike recalled. “But I asked Josh if he was smoking a cigarette, and he said no. And I threw the blankets off of me and I went to my door and opened my door and there was a wall of smoke, and it was white.” The smoke detector in the dining room was going off.

Mike called out to his mother but heard no response, he said. He began to choke on the smoke. Running outside, he saw his mom’s truck parked in front of the trailer. Certain she was still inside, he grabbed a hose and tried to reach her room.

“When the slack gave out, I dropped down to my knees to see what I could see. And I see my mother's legs, I seen blood and I seen fire from essentially her waist up,” he said.

Rita Politte was dead. Investigators would later say she’d been killed by blunt force trauma to her head, then set ablaze.

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Almost immediately, sheriff’s deputies decided Mike Politte was a suspect. He’d been the only family member at home that night. They would also testify that he didn’t act the way they thought he should act.

He had no idea. “I don't think I realized that they were treating me like a suspect until they were actually interrogating me,” Politte recalled.

Trainum said a rush to judgment led to many, many errors. He points to numerous pieces of evidence deputies disregarded or failed to properly document in their haste to build a case against the teen. They never took plaster casts of the footprints found outside the trailer. They didn’t follow up on a neighbor’s report about her dogs barking viciously around 3 a.m., suggesting an intruder — noise that had also awoken Politte’s friend Josh Sansoucie.

They never found a murder weapon. They also never found blood on any of Politte’s clothes, which Trainum says points to his innocence. Where could he have disposed of a weapon or bloody clothing? An intruder would have had a much easier time discarding both.

And while investigators were skeptical that Politte and Sansoucie could have slept through an attack on the other side of the trailer, Trainum takes a different view.

“They kind of assumed that the attack was this long, drawn-out thing,” he said. “But when you look at the crime scene, it was a blitz. She couldn't fight the person. He attacked her, and she was probably down and out very, very quickly. And so the amount of noise could have been minimal.

“Second,” he added, “they don't take into account the boys’ sleeping habits. With my teenage boys, they could sleep through just about anything.”

And then there’s the forensics analysis. Prosecutors essentially had one piece of physical evidence tying Politte to his mother’s death: Their expert found traces of gasoline on his shoes. They believed that showed he’d drizzled the accelerant and then set the body ablaze.

But that conclusion has since been debunked. John Lentini is a forensics expert and a past chairman of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Criminalistics Section. He wrote the book on fire analysis in criminal cases — literally. It’s called “Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation.”

Asked to examine the evidence by Politte’s attorneys, Lentini found no gasoline on Mike’s shoes. Shoes come with a variety of chemicals on them, particularly tennis shoes. Tests show that’s all that was present, Lentini said.

For 25 years, he said, investigators have known that shoes are “problematic evidence in arson cases.” A paper published in 2000 explained the precise error made by the analyst in Politte’s case. Politte didn’t go to trial for two more years after that.

Even so, Lentini said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn someone was in prison solely due to such an erroneous conclusion. “There's lots of people in prison for crimes that they didn't commit or crimes that never even happened,” he said.

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Lawyers for Mike Politte note in their filings that there’s not only a substantial body of evidence pointing to Politte’s innocence — there’s also evidence suggesting someone else had a better motive for killing his mother.

At the time of Rita Politte’s death, she had just finalized an ugly divorce with Mike’s dad. Rita Politte was awarded child support, half of her ex-husband’s retirement money and attorney’s fees, at a hearing a week before she was killed. A witness reported that Ed Politte told her she’d “never see a penny” of the money. Other witnesses alleged he called her at the bar where she worked that same night and threatened to kill her.

Ed had an alibi for the morning of Rita’s death. Phone records show that he answered a call at home, right around the time of her death. Law enforcement never seemed to consider the idea that he might still be involved.

Witnesses reported seeing a cousin of Ed’s, a man who lived a few miles from Hopewell, in the vicinity of the trailer on the morning of Rita’s death. One witness reported that he was wearing a wet shirt and walking away from the trailer. Another witness reported seeing the cousin’s distinctive two-tone truck parked not far from the trailer early that morning.

Ed and his cousin were known to be close. Yet investigators didn’t explore the idea of a connection.

“They did not dig into it,” said Megan Crane of the MacArthur Justice Center. “And there are law enforcement [officers] on the public record since the trial saying they continue to suspect Ed Politte was involved. But no real legwork has been done to do anything about that.”

Neither Ed nor his cousin responded to letters seeking comment. No phone number listed for either man in publicly available databases led to them.

In a 2016 MTV documentary series that explored Michael Politte’s case, Ed Politte said he knew his son didn’t commit the murder, and suggested deputies made the case against Mike only because phone records stood in the way of making a case against him. He declined to discuss his divorce from Rita Politte.

Neither Mike nor his sisters have had contact with their father for years, Mike Polittle said.

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Mike Politte was 17 when he was put on trial for his mother’s murder — a significantly bigger, and older, kid than he’d been at the time of her death. Represented by an overworked public defender, he didn’t testify on his own behalf, even though he wanted to. His lawyer said he hadn’t had the time to prepare Politte for his testimony. The defense he put on lasted less than a half-day.

Found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, Politte was 18 when he was sent to maximum security prison.

“It took time to adapt,” he acknowledged. “Because there's a certain way you're supposed to carry yourself and there's a certain way that you're supposed to move in prison. And it takes a while to fully grasp what those strings and what those moves are, right? Because you're always being watched. Especially being so young, everybody's got their eyes on you, including predators. ... It takes a lot of mental strength to adapt at that young age to this kind of life with these kinds of people.”

For years, Politte held out hope that the lawyers hired by his father would triumph on appeal and get him out. It was only years later, after a friend intervened, that he learned the lawyers had been let go and the deadline for his last chance at appeal had passed. Devastated, he turned to heroin.

But he never gave up on the idea of proving his innocence. And after he finally got the opportunity to sit down with people from the Midwest Innocence Project and beg them to take his case, he felt a raw shot of hope that changed his life.

He never took heroin again.

“From that moment on, I knew that I had help,” he said. “And I knew that they were going to get me out of here.”

That was more than 10 years ago, but Politte said he’s never lost his optimism. As the attorneys have painstakingly built the case for his innocence, he’s been buoyed by the possibility of seeing life outside prison again.

Even beyond his innocence claim, he now has a good shot at release; the Supreme Court ruled in another case that sentences like his, with juveniles being sent to prison without a chance at parole, are unconstitutional.

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Crane was intimately involved in the litigation to ensure that precedent was applied in Missouri and helped former juveniles get fair parole hearings. She said she believes he has an excellent case.

“The only thing that may work against him, to be honest, is his innocence,” she said. “Parole boards have been known to hold innocence against prisoners, because they want to see a showing of remorse, a showing of accountability. And even in a case like Mike’s, where there is ample scientific, compelling evidence of innocence, that works against them, because where's the remorse? Where’s the ‘I’m sorry’?

“But aside from that, we are extremely hopeful that Mike will be released on parole, because somehow, despite going into adult prison as a kid, he has managed to not only survive, he has thrived. And he has made every effort to make his time in prison productive. He often talks about how his guiding mission is to make his mom proud and follow her example. And he absolutely has.”

Even so, parole isn’t good enough for Mike Politte. To him, his innocence claim is not just about getting out of prison. It’s about clearing his name — and, yes, finding his mother’s killer.

“I'm gonna throw punches,” he said. “I'm gonna keep throwing punches. If the Supreme Court denies me, I'm gonna throw another punch. I'm not gonna stop fighting. And justice for Rita.

“I wish people would yell it out there. I wish people would picket with signs.”

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The audio version of this story was co-produced and edited by Emily Woodbury.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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