FARMINGTON -- Guilty of murder. Life in prison. That's the fate of 18-year-old Michael Bernie Politte, found guilty by a jury Thursday night of killing his mother three years ago.
The 12-member jury took more than four hours to deliberate before returning to the St. Francois County courtroom to deliver a guilty verdict. At the request of the defense, each juror was polled individually as to his or her finding in the case. "Guilty," each replied one by one.
It was a courtroom 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.
Formal sentencing will not come until about April 19. While the jury suggested life in prison, the final sentencing will be up to Honorable Judge Kenneth W. Pratte, the circuit court judge presiding over the case. A pre-sentence investigation was requested from the state division of probation and parole, to be delivered no later than five days prior to sentencing.
Court convened on the final of three days with the defense putting witnesses on the stand. 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 jury heard nearly an hour-and-a-half of closing arguments. Richard Hicks, working as half of the prosecution team, began to outline the case and evidence presented the past three days as he recalled it.
Hicks recalled that two juvenile detention workers testified Bernie 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.
He 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.
Hicks made comparisons to the concentrated burns on railroad ties admittedly made by Bernie in the hours prior to his mother's death and a similar-type burn found on and around her body. The burn on the tie had been concentrated down into the wood and had not spread to the sides. The burning of Rita Politte's head and upper body region 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 Bernie was not an innocent 14-year-old boy at the time. There was marijuana found and he admitted to smoking "pot." There were condoms found in his room. 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 "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 his client had been interrogated for hours by seasoned law enforcement agents, and had thus made possibly contradictory statements.
The defender 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 Bernie Politte'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 Bernie 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.
Finally, the fate of Bernie, now an older teenager, was discussed. "When he saw that body (of his mother) he ceased being a child forever," Williams said. "He's had to live with that for three years . . . everybody knowing (he was charged with the crime)."
Bernie Politte has remained in custody 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 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 Bernie 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, again to aim the initial heat and flash from the fire down and destroying the evidence.
Rupp reasoned that Bernie 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 Bernie Politte 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 at 2:06 p.m. 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.
Bernie 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 three days.
Pratte ended the day by commending the work done by both the defense and prosecution. He said the jurors were lucky to have witnessed a "professional job" on both sides of the courtroom.