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Michael Politte could be second Missouri prisoner to have wrongful conviction cleared under new law

MacArthur Justice Center

Washington County Prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth last week filed a motion to vacate conviction in the case of Michael Politte, saying there was "clear and convincing evidence" that Politte was erroneously convicted of killing his mother.

Last August, Missouri prosecutors gained a new tool — a law that allowed them to take action in cases they believed had resulted in wrongful convictions.

And last week, Washington County Prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth became the second prosecutor in Missouri to use it. Hedgecorth filed a motion to vacate conviction in the case of Michael Politte, who was arrested at 14 and charged with killing his mother in Hopewell, Missouri. Hedgecorth wrote that there was “clear and convincing evidence” Politte was erroneously convicted.

Politte was recently released on parole and is trying to build a new life in the St. Louis area after 23 years behind bars. Last year, he filed an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court, seeking exoneration for a brutal murder he’s always maintained he didn’t commit.

Hedgecorth’s motion could help fast-track that attempt.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker filed the first motion to vacate conviction under Missouri’s new law last August. She explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that she was so determined to use it to free Kevin Strickland that she filed her brief one second after midnight on the night the law first went into effect.

In that case, Strickland was serving his 44th year in prison, Baker said — and she’d become convinced he was innocent. “I needed to move with an urgency.”

Like Politte, Strickland had attempted to file on his own. But the new state law clearly made a huge difference. “Mr. Strickland had filed, I believe, 19 habeas post-conviction motions over a period of 40 years,” she said. “He didn't get relief.” Her motion led to Strickland being released from prison in just three months.

As with a defendant’s appeals, the state’s attorney general has the right to fight against a prosecutor’s motion to vacate. That’s something Attorney General Eric Schmitt did in Strickland’s case, Baker said. But she believes the AG’s real loyalty should be to justice — and that instead of a knee-jerk argument against exoneration, the state’s prosecutors should decide in some cases to stand down.

“Not only do they have the ability to stand down — do they have the discretion to decide what is the right path and course to take — they actually have a legal obligation to do so,” she said. “This is not just a game; this is not a law school test. This is someone's real life. And whether you are an assistant attorney general, the attorney general or a local prosecutor, it's all the same. We're all bound by the same oath and duties and responsibilities. And that is, you do not let an injustice stand when you know it is wrong. So it's that simple.”

In a statement, Politte’s attorneys said they were grateful for Hedgecorth’s attention to the case. “We thank the Washington County Prosecuting Attorney for his efforts to overturn Michael Politte’s unjust conviction and applaud him for acting upon his oath as a minister of justice to ‘ensure that justice is done.’

“After conducting a full review of the evidence, Mr. Hedgecorth reached the only conclusion supported by the facts: Michael Politte's conviction is based on evidence that everyone agrees is false, and a conviction based upon false cannot stand. We hope that the court moves quickly to hear the prosecutor’s motion, overturn Mr. Politte’s conviction, and finally provide closure to a family that has waited 23 years for justice.”

In Strickland’s case, the judge ruled after receiving motions from both Peters (in favor of exoneration) and the attorney general (against), as well as a three-day evidentiary hearing. He issued his ruling just shy of two weeks after the hearing.

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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fenske
Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.
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