A Missouri man, 37, who was sentenced to prison for the death of his mother when he was just 14 years old because police said he showed no emotion as his mom lay lifeless on the floor could be freed as the state Supreme Court considers his case.
Attorneys for Michael Politte, who was convicted at age 14 of killing his mother, last week asked the Missouri Supreme Court to free him after more than 22 years behind bars, citing now-disproven evidence, a faulty investigation and a flawed trial defense.
Rita Politte was burned to death inside her mobile home in Hopewell, Missouri, in 1998. Prosecutors claimed Michael Politte used a blunt object to bash his mother’s head and then set the home on fire for her to burn.
Police said they noticed that gasoline was found on his sneakers. Investigators believe that gasoline was also used to set her on fire.
The alleged traces of gasoline found on Michael’s sneakers was the only piece of physical evidence linking him to the crime.
Today, Missouri officials acknowledge that the evidence used to convict Politte was flimsy.
In 2016, a lab report determined that there was no gasoline on Michael’s sneakers. Instead, they were chemicals often found on the rubber part of the shoes.
Now legal experts say that Michael Politte wasn’t adequately represented by his attorneys and that the case prosecutors used to convict him was flawed.
Politte was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after being tried as an adult.
Michael Politte entered prison for the murder of his mother as a 14-year-old boy (left). Now, he is 37 and serving a life sentence while continuing to maintain his innocence
Rita Politte suffered blunt force trauma and was burned to death inside her mobile home in Hopewell, Missouri, in 1998 (pictured with Michael)
Politte said he found his mother’s burning body in her bedroom at their trailer home (pictured) as he and a friend tried to escape
He is housed at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
‘They tried to put themselves in my shoes of how they would feel, how I should have acted in regards finding my mother burning to death on the floor. It wasn’t to their liking … so in their eyes, I was guilty,’ Politte told USA TODAY.
At his trial, one of the investigators testified that young Michael was ‘acting normal, not concerned about what had happened, [had shown] no visible signs of remorse.’
But legal experts say that there is no scientific basis for testimony in which officers tried to read the emotions of a traumatized boy.
Prosecutors ‘should never have been allowed into evidence, because there’s no science behind it,’ said Steven Drizin, a clinical law professor at Northwestern University and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
‘Sometimes, trauma can lead us to act with a sort of a flat effect or in what may be perceived to be an unemotional way,’ he said.
‘And that doesn’t mean they’re guilty and it doesn’t mean that’s a basis for turning up the heat during an interrogation.’
The defense argued that the state did not provide a motive for Politte to kill his mother. Much of the case hinged on fire investigators’ testimony who said the fire was started with gasoline and investigators determined Politte had gasoline on his shoes, which has been disproven
Michael and both his sisters (pictured together, top) have always maintained that he was innocent. Attorneys argued that investigators ignored other potential suspects, including Politte’s father (bottom right), who was going through a contentious divorce with Rita
‘They set their sights on me right then,’ Politte said.
‘It was easy for them to assume that I was responsible because I was the only living person other than (his friend) in my house.
‘And then they began to analyze my behavior.’
The Missouri Court of Appeals in September refused to hear Politte’s case, prompting the request to the state Supreme Court.
‘Rita Politte deserves justice,’ the court filing states.
‘But she is not the only victim here. Her family, including her then 14-year-old, now grown, son Michael, are also victims of the State’s failure to properly investigate and prosecute her murderer, not to mention their knowing misconduct.
‘This Court can finally bring peace to this family.’
In addition to asking that Politte be freed, his attorneys are seeking an evidentiary hearing or appointment of a special master to investigate the case.
‘Most basically, we believe Mike should be freed because he was convicted on the basis of false evidence,’ Politte’s attorney, Megan Crane, said in a phone interview.
‘Everyone knows it’s false. Even the state admits it’s false.’
Michael was the only suspect despite the fact that his mother and father had just emerged from an acrimonious divorce.
Attorneys for Politte are seeking to have him freed, citing now-disproven evidence, a faulty investigation and a flawed trial defense
When officers and the fire marshal arrived on the scene, Politte asked sheriff’s officers how his mother died. He wondered if she had her throat slit or if she died violently in some other way.
Investigators testified that this made them suspicious of Michael, since his mother died of head trauma.
The questions, the lack of emotion, and young Michael’s reputation around town as a ‘fire bug’ led law enforcement officials to focus on him.
‘Other officers focused on Michael right away and assumed he was guilty because they just did not think he was telling the truth and they thought he was acting odd,’ according to Tammy Nash, a former deputy sheriff in Washington County who worked on the case.
Nash submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court which read: ‘I disagreed; Michael was a fourteen year old kid who had just found his mom dead.
‘I wondered how did they expect him to act after this trauma.’
Michael was also the focal point of the investigation even though his mother was threatened by his father a week before after the courts approved a significant financial settlement against him from the divorce.
Michael’s father surrendered his son to the sheriff’s office within days of his mother’s death.
Michael continued to protest his innocence and insisted he was being ‘framed.’ He also demanded an attorney.
‘Michael became the prime suspect,’ according to Michael’s lawyers.
‘Police wrongly suspected him because they misinterpreted his reaction to the trauma of finding his mother’s burning body as evidence of guilt, deception, and ultimately, what the State called a remorseless cold heart.’
At trial, Michael’s attorneys did not call witnesses who could testify to his innocence ‘because they did not fit the narrative decided on the morning of the murder,’ his attorneys said.
‘His attorney did not consult or present a single expert, despite the State’s reliance on scientific evidence of which counsel had no knowledge or experience,’ his attorney’s state Supreme Court filing reads.
‘Counsel did not call any of Michael’s family to testify in his defense, and counsel did not prepare or call Michael to testify despite his urgent desire to explain his innocence.’
It took the jury slightly more than four hours to return a guilty verdict.
Last week, a juror who helped put him in prison has now come out claiming he was innocent and should be freed.
‘If I had known then what I know now, I would not have convicted,’ Linda Dickerson-Bell wrote in an affidavit.
Dickerson-Bell, who has emerged as the second juror from Politte’s murder trial to publicly express her regret for finding him guilty, said she was pressured to convict the defendant by other jurors.
Politte said in a statement in August that he ended up in prison due to a judicial system ‘overseen by flawed human beings’ who ‘do not want to admit that they wrongfully convicted a 14-year-old for murdering his own mother.’
The petition said Politte and a friend were sleeping when they awoke to smoke in the early hours of December 5, 1998.
Politte said he found his mother’s burning body in her bedroom as he and the friend tried to escape. She also suffered blunt force head trauma.
In 2017, juror Jonathan Peterson wrote in an affidavit that he did not think ‘justice was served’ when Politte was convicted.
Peterson wrote that he while was ‘unsure’ Politte committed the murder, he claimed he voted to convict because the trial judge pressured the jury to return a verdict.
Before he went to trial, Politte rejected an offer to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter carrying a 15-year sentence because he was innocent, she said.
Had he accepted the plea deal, he would have regained his freedom a decade ago, Politte said in a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
‘I didn’t murder my mother,’ he told the station.