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Lawyers have filed a petition with hopes of overturning the conviction of a man imprisoned for murdering his mother more than 20 years ago.
Michael Politte, now 37, is serving a life sentence at a state prison in Missouri for the murder of his mother, Rita Politte, according to the Associated Press. In 1998, Politte found Rita’s burning body in their mobile home in rural Hopewell, Missouri.
Michael Politte was only 14 years old at the time.
Organizations that aim to overturn wrongful convictions, including the Midwest Innocence Project, the MacArthur Justice Center, and attorneys from the Langdon & Emison law firm, have been fighting for Politte’s release for years, according to the AP. On Monday, they filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Missouri Court of Appeals on the grounds of an alleged biased investigation, faulty science, and an incompetent defense at trial.
“Michael and his sisters have never been able to grieve their mother because they have been fighting for Michael’s freedom ever since the say [sic] she died,” Midwest Innocence Project attorney Rachel Wester said, according to KHSB News. “It is far past time for justice for Rita Politte, for Michael, and for his family.”
Politte had a friend sleeping over when, on Dec. 5, 1998, the mobile home caught on fire, according to the AP. Politte and the friend found Rita’s burning body and escaped.
Rita also sustained blunt force trauma to her head and a dislocated shoulder, according to the pathologist cited in the petition. She was found face-up on the floor in her bedroom doorway wearing only a pair of underwear.
The friend, along with Politte’s two sisters, has long supported Politte’s account, according to a press release from the MacArthur Justice Center.
Police referred to Michael as a “remorseless, cold-blooded killer,” according to the release, a reference the state used against him in court.
“They [police] did not realize what severe trauma can look like in a kid,” said MacArthur Justice Center co-director Megan Crane. “The police’s misjudgment of a traumatized kid as a remorseless, cold-blooded killer paved the way for his wrongful conviction. As a result, a kid grew up behind bars due to the state’s ongoing refusal to admit a mistake.”
Politte was interrogated for 48 hours without sleep and arrested three days after the murder, according to the MacArthur Justice Center. Politte also had no attorney.
The case against Politte relied heavily on “flawed fire science,” according to the Midwest Innocence Project. At trial, a fire marshal indicated that an accelerant was found around Rita’s body. A separate analyst further testified that gasoline was found on Politte’s shoes.
According to the petition, even the state agreed that this testimony was incorrect.
“The State now concedes the only physical evidence that purportedly tied Michael to his mother’s death was false: the State admits there was no gasoline on Michael’s shoes,” the court filing stated. “Instead, the substances were simply compounds commonly used in the shoe manufacturing process.”
In the original trial, the state also used the fact that Michael and his friends enjoyed playing with firecrackers against him, according to the Midwest Innocence Project.
A fire investigator referred to Politte as a firebug at trial, according to the petition, a notion that was not challenged by the original defense.
In signed affidavit, then-Washington County Sheriff Tammy Nash stated that investigators focused on Politte because they “thought he was acting odd.”
“I disagreed,” swore Nash. “Michael was a 14-year-old kid who had just found his mom dead.”
Nash also “overheard Michael tell his dad that his dad was letting him take the fall for his mom’s murder,” according to the affidavit.
In the petition, the defense argues that Michael Politte’s father was also a suspect at the time.
“Indeed, law enforcement ignored much more likely suspects,” the petition stated. “The victim’s ex-husband, who had just lost a significant divorce settlement to the victim the week before her murder and threatened her life at that time, and his cousin, who was seen by multiple witnesses coming from the victim’s home as the fire burned – because they did not fit the narrative decided on the morning of the murder.”
The petition also stated the evidence that could have been tested today, including Rita’s rape kit, were “inappropriately stored, comingled, covered with mold, and in some cases, eaten by rats.”
The Washington County District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case when contacted by Oxygen.com.
Politte has consistently maintained his innocence and refused a plea deal that would ensure a lighter sentence, according to the petition.
“How did I end up in prison?” stated Politte, according to the press release. “Because this judicial system is overseen by flawed human beings who do not want to admit they got anything wrong. They do not want to admit that they wrongfully convicted a 14-year-old for murdering his own mother.”
A Facebook page devoted to establishing Michael Politte’s innocence can be found here.
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