Michael Politte was 14 years old in December of 1998 when his mother was bludgeoned to death in her bedroom and her body set ablaze in the trailer the mother and son shared in rural Washington County. Today his story makes the transition from dusty court documents and newspaper archives to televisions around the world on MTV’s new docu-series Unlocking the Truth.
Series host Ryan Ferguson knows a little something about being behind bars. He spent 10 years incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Now a free man after being exonerated, he’s made it his mission to look into the cases of others he suspects may be innocent and wrongly accused.
According to the MTV News website, the debut episode Unlocking the Truth will feature three cases of men fighting for their freedom. Politte’s story will be told, as will a look into the cases of Bryan Case and Kalvin Michael Smith.
“Ten years was taken from me. If I can stop them from putting innocent people in prison, that 10 years will have meant something,” Ferguson told MTV News reporter Jordana Ossad.
Ferguson’s cohost on Unlocking the Truth is “co-investigator” Eva Nagao, who has led work on the Exoneration Project. She, along with a film crew, visited the area earlier this year and sat down with Daily Journal Managing Editor Doug Smith to discuss the case. Smith covered the murder trial in 2002 as a court reporter.
“She was very interested in the mood in the courtroom at the time. She wanted to know what I remembered of Michael and his family members. She asked if there had been many murder cases of this type tried in this region at that time,” Smith said of Nagao. “She requested copies of the stories spanning from the day the murder happened until Michael was found guilty and sentenced to a term of life in prison.”
Politte is currently serving time in the Missouri Department of Corrections, in the same prison where Ferguson spent his decade behind bars.
As for Politte, back in 2002 a 12-member jury took less than five hours to deliberate before returning to the St. Francois County courtroom to deliver a guilty verdict.
The courtroom was full of family members and a few court workers. Most of the state's witnesses, many experts living and working in other parts of the state, had already left for the day. Several family members began to cry when they heard the verdict. One young woman ran from the room sobbing uncontrollably.
The trial was heard by Judge Kenneth W. Pratte, the circuit court judge presiding over the case. A former juvenile detention center worker testified to the incident. She was asked about reports she had filed, and whether some of those files had been amended at the request of her supervisor.
After a break for lunch the last day of the trial, the jury heard nearly an hour-and-a-half of closing arguments. Richard Hicks, working as half of the prosecution team, outlined the case and evidence presented the previous three days.
He recalled that two juvenile detention workers testified Michael made the statement, "I haven't cared since Dec. 5, that's when I killed my mom." The prosecutor said that was a "spontaneous utterance" and suggested that truths sometimes come out when a person is upset.
Hicks talked about how the murder of Rita Politte was done with deliberation. The concept of deliberation is one of the deciding factors between finding a person guilty of first degree murder, as opposed to the lesser charge of murder in the second degree.
The prosecutor made comparisons to the concentrated burns on railroad ties admittedly made by Politte in the hours prior to his mother's death and a similar-type burn found on and around her body. The burning of Rita Politte's head and upper body was contained to a small area and had been hot enough to burn through the carpet and plywood floor while not spreading to the area around the body.
The attorney went on to say Michael was not an innocent 14-year-old boy at the time. There was reportedly marijuana found and he admitted to smoking "pot." He added that the defendant showed no remorse immediately after the crime or any time, with the exception of the one month anniversary of his mom's death - the day he supposedly made the incriminating statement in front of juvenile authorities.
Downplaying the possibility of someone else breaking into the trailer and killing Rita Politte, Hicks said if there was another killer that "this is the luckiest intruder in the world."
Public Defender Wayne Williams started his closing statements by saying the death of Rita was "a crime of extreme passion." He told how young Michael had been interrogated for hours by seasoned law enforcement agents, and had thus made possibly contradictory statements.
Williams questioned pathologist Dr. Michael Zaricor's testimony of lividity found on both the front and back of Rita's legs as being the result of blood forced down in the body from the extreme heat of her upper body being on fire. He suggested Rita had been face down sometime after her death, and then been turned face up before being set on fire.
Williams reasoned that gasoline traces found on Michael’s shoes was left over from his playing with gas and setting a fire on railroad ties the night before. The jury later requested the shoes be brought to the jury room during consideration of the case.
A question of doubt was raised when Williams asked if Michael would have taken home a witness, his friend he met earlier the previous evening, if he planned on killing his mother.
The friend, who wasn't called to testify for the defense or prosecution and was given complete immunity from prosecution in the case prior to the trial, was in the courtroom watching the proceedings that day.
Finally, the fate of Michael, now an older teenager, was discussed. "When he saw that body (of his mother) he ceased being a child forever," Williams told the jury and judge. "He's had to live with that for three years … everybody knowing (he was charged with the crime)."
Michael has spent all of his time locked up since Dec. 6, 1998, the day after his mom was murdered. He spent about four months in juvenile detention prior to being certified to stand trial as an adult. At that time he was transferred and confined in the county jail.
Washington County Prosecuting Attorney John Rupp finished the state's closing arguments at the trial by saying the defendant had practiced controlled burns. He painted a similarity of how Politte had admitted to pouring gasoline on a railroad tie and sat trash on top of it, suggesting it was an effort to aim the initial flash and heat of the fire downward.
He suggested Michael had later attacked his mom, poured gasoline on her body and removed his shirt, likely with blood traces on it from the attack, and threw it on her face and upper body to aim the initial heat and flash from the fire downward and destroy the evidence.
Rupp reasoned that young Michael and his friend had returned to the trailer after alerting a neighbor, not to try to extinguish the fire but to remove a marijuana plant in a container that was likely in the bedroom.
He said one of the boys likely took the plant out the back sliding glass doors. A volunteer firemen had reported finding the doors ajar when he arrived at the back of the double wide trailer.
Rupp described Michael as a "self-serving, self-centered young man, and when he doesn't get his way he becomes dangerous." He said even though the boy admitted seeing his mother on fire, there were no signs he had tried to pull her body from the flames.
Jurors were given instructions and sequestered to deliberate the case at 2:06 p.m. that final day of the three-day trial. Family members and state's witnesses and prosecutors walked the floors and wandered in and out of the courtroom until 6:25 p.m., when the announcement came a verdict had been decided.
Everyone gathered back in the courtroom with the jury walking in single file at 6:27 p.m.
Judge Pratte asked for the jury information and verdict form.
"Guilty of murder in the second degree . . . life imprisonment," he read from the verdict form. He polled the jury as to their votes at the request of the defense. He then accepted the jury's verdict as a matter of record.
Michael Politte sat quietly as the verdict was given. While some family members showed obvious upset, others sat quietly and watched the proceedings. The majority were said to be relatives of the boy's father, who was also in attendance for the entire trial.
Michael was led from the courthouse a short time later under the direction of armed deputies to await his formal sentencing, which would come weeks later.
In the years since many family members have argued his innocence. They’ve stood behind him and saw him through the last 14 years, visiting him on holidays and regularly during visitation hours at whichever correctional facility he was being held in at the time.
Many family members met with show founder and co-investigators Ferguson and Nagao and will be interviewed as part of the look into Michael’s case. And you can rest assured that many family members, friends and neighbors will be watching when the show airs tonight at 10 p.m. on MTV.