‘This kid never had a chance’—Team of lawyers work to prove innocence of 14-year-old convicted in mother’s murder
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Michael Politte was 14 years old when his mother died.
Rita Politte was beaten, then set on fire in December of 1998. Michael and a friend were sleeping in the next room and say they woke up to smoke.
That would traumatic enough for any teenage boy, but it gets worse. Michael was convicted of killing his mother.
“This kid never had a chance,” says Politte’s attorney Megan Crane.
Michael Politte has always sworn he’s innocent. He’s now 38 years old and shares his story from prison.
“I remember the hair on the back of my neck rising up--I didn’t know what to do,” said Politte. “What’s a 14-year-old kid supposed to do in that moment?”
After he woke up to smoke, he tried to put the fire out himself with a garden hose, but the hose wouldn’t stretch that far.
“I ran until to the into the hose all the slack is gone,” Politte remembers. “I knelt down to see what I can see. And when I did, I seen my mother’s legs and I seen blood on her legs and she was on fire from her waist up.”
Police expected Michael to be more emotional at the crime scene, maybe even shed tears. But he didn’t. He was quiet—and angry.
“I mean I can still hear it--I can hear the fire crackling,” said Politte. “There’s times I wake up in the morning that I can smell (it). It’s with me with me forever.”
Politte was defiant throughout the investigation. And a police dog alerted investigators to Michael’s shoes—three times. Testing revealed gasoline.
When the case went to trial, Michael had a public defender. Still Michael believed in the system. He believed the truth would come out. But with no explanation for gasoline on the shoes, a jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.
He’s lived more than half of his life behind bars.
“I can’t describe the feeling of helplessness,” said Politte. “There’s no reason to exist anymore.”
In the years since Politte’s conviction, many question whether the court got it right. His case attracted the attention of the Midwest Innocence Project and the MacArthur Justice Center and a Kansas City law firm, Langdon & Emison, in part, because of his age.
“According to law enforcement, he just wasn’t acting right. He wasn’t emotional. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t upset. But psychologists tell us that’s what trauma often looks like, especially in a kid,” said Crane.
Politte’s attorneys point the court to another possible motive for the murder. The week of Rita Politte’s murder she was granted alimony, child support and part of her ex-husband’s pension and 401K. They also argue that her ex-husband, Ed Politte responded, “you will never see the day when you’ll get the money.”
Investigators found a boot print behind the burning trailer, but Ed Politte was quickly dismissed as a suspect in the case. He had an alibi. He was at work at the time of the murder.
Michael’s current lawyers sent investigators back to Hopewell to conduct new interviews. They now tell the court that investigation turned up witnesses who place a cousin of Ed’s near the scene of the crime the morning of the fire and circumstantial evidence suggests he had a financial windfall shortly after the murder. They argue the evidence implicates the cousins in a murder-for-hire scheme.
We contacted both men for a response. Ed sent this:
I’m grateful and Happy Mike is being released. Now about me, I did a dozen or so interviews with the law. I did a lie detector test, a blood test, a DNA test and fingerprints. I cooperated 100% with the law. I don’t know what else I could have done. My place of work was checked out. My coworkers were interviewed, I have a couple dozen witnesses that placed me 85 miles from my ex…. That’s all I have to say. Your (sic) a reporter I’m sure you can verify what I’ve said. I will discuss this no further. Thank you for atleast(sic) getting my side.
New Evidence Supports Michael’s innocence claim
More than 20 years after the murder, evidence is now on Michael Politte’s side. Those gasoline-soaked shoes that help convict him—investigators got that wrong.
A newer test can now tell the difference between accelerants. The new test reveals there’s no gasoline on the shoes- the earlier test was positive for the adhesive in the shoes. That information was revealed six years ago.
The majority of jurors who are still alive and even a former member of the Sheriff’s Department are now advocating for Michael Politte’s release.
“It shouldn’t be this hard. We’re the greatest country in the world, but yet here I am, after six years of discovering that I was wrongfully convicted with false science, my jury was lied to, and I’m still sitting in a prison cell,” said Politte. “I don’t want to be angry—I just want to live.”
Release is not “The End”
As it turns out—Michael will be released from prison at the end of April. Not because a judge ruled in his favor, but because the parole board granted his release due to new sentencing guidelines for juveniles.
Michael told us one of the first things he’ll do after this release is visit his mother’s grave.
“She can probably finally rest,” he said. “I don’t think she’s been resting since she passed away knowing what happened in the aftermath.”
But that’s not the end for Michael. He says he will fight to clear his name and hopes the local prosecutor will reopen the case and look at new evidence. He said he would tell his mother, “Here, I am, and I’m going to continue to fight for you and I’m going to see it through.”
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