A Missouri murder investigation has been reopened after questions have been raised about the conviction of. Politte was 14 when he was charged in 1998 with murdering his mother, Rita, who died after being hit in the head and set on fire in her Hopewell home. More than three years after the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, though he maintained he was innocent. Politte spent nearly 20 years in prison before a new law passed in Missouri that made him eligible for parole. Now 38 and out on parole, Politte tells “48 Hours” correspondent Erin Moriarty who he believes is responsible for the murder.
A MURDER IN HOPEWELL
Michael Politte: There’s nothin’ in this world that anybody can ever do to me that’s gonna be worse than what I seen.
On Dec. 5, 1998, Michael Politte says he woke up to find his mother’s body lying on her bedroom floor — on fire.
He was 14 years old.
Michael Politte: What I seen was hatred and evil. … The individual that did that to my mother hated her with everything inside of ’em.
Rita Politte was just 40 when she died. All these years later, Michael’s older sisters, Chrystal and Melonie, still have vivid memories.
Erin Moriarty (looking at photo album): What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Rita?
Melonie Politte: Her laugh. Definitely.
Chrystal Politte: She was always laughing, smiling.
Michael and his sisters grew up in the tiny, rural community of Hopewell, Missouri. It’s about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Chrystal Politte: We didn’t lock our doors. … We lived by all of our family.
Michael Politte: We rode bicycles, motorcycles … I was happy.
Michael went by the nickname “Bernie” back then.
Melonie Politte: His middle name is Bernard. It’s short for Bernard.
Their parents, Edward and Rita, got married as teens, and Chrystal and Melonie say the couple had their struggles.
Melonie Politte: He was very mentally abusive.
Chrystal Politte: He also cheated on her —
Melonie Politte: A lot.
Chrystal Politte: But she loved him. Love — It outweighed any other feeling she ever had(crying).
Eventually, though, love wasn’t enough.
Michael Politte: I witnessed violence between the two of ’em.
There were allegations of domestic violence on both sides. The year before the murder, there was an incident where police were called. Michael told an officer that his dad pushed his mom to the floor and choked her. The couple ultimately divorced in the summer of 1998 after more than 20 years of marriage. The divorce decree cited Edward’s infidelity.
Michael Politte: My dad would — he would try to pay me to come live with him. I wouldn’t. I wanted to live with my mom.
Michael ended up having to split time between both parents. On Dec. 4, 1998, he was at his mom’s. That night, she was out working at a local bar, and Michael was home alone.
Michael Politte: Probably 7, 8 or so, I get bored. … I ride my bicycle down to the general store.
It’s there that Michael says he met up with his friend, 15-year-old Josh SanSoucie, who he invited to sleep over. The two hung out for hours until Michael’s mom got home around midnight.
Michael Politte: I asked him, I was like, “Man, where do you wanna sleep at?” … “You can sleep here in the living room on the foldout couch.” … “Or you can just sleep, you know, on the floor in my room.” He’s like, “I’ll just crash on your floor.”
Michael says he slept through the night—until just before 6:30 a.m., when he and Josh awoke and noticed smoke in the room.
Michael Politte: We ran outta the room. … My mom’s … bedroom door is facing me … And I could see the glow, an orange glow in that area.
He says he called out to his mom, but there was no answer.
Erin Moriarty: Michael, what are you feeling at this point?
Michael Politte: Panic, fear.
Michael says he went and grabbed a hose outside and then ran toward his mom’s room — and what he saw, he’d never forget.
Michael Politte: I seen blood on her legs. And she was on fire from the waist up. And I turn the water hose on. … I don’t know how long I sat there. It coulda been minutes, it coulda been seconds. I don’t know (emotional).
Josh ran to get help, but it was too late. Chrystal would soon get a call from her brother with the news.
Chrystal Politte: I just sat on my bed, and I just kept sayin’, “I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna go.” (Crying) Because, you know, then you know it’s real.
Chrystal picked Melonie up and by the time they got to the scene, police cars and fire trucks were lining the driveway.
Chrystal Politte: Mike was … in the front seat, passenger side of the police car. And we just ran up to the window … asked him what was—like, what happened. … And he had soot on his face and he had tear marks all down his face. And— he said, “I don’t know. Mom’s dead.”
Tammy Nash: You could smell the smoke; you could smell flesh.
Tammy Nash worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department back then and was one of the responding officers.
It was clear that this was a murder. Rita had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and blood was visible on her bedroom walls, indicating a struggle had occurred. A fire marshal quickly concluded that an accelerant was used to set her on fire.
Erin Moriarty: What was your job at that point? What was your assignment?
Tammy Nash: To gather the evidence … We was looking for anything that … she coulda been struck with. … We never found a weapon.
While Nash processed the scene, Michael and Josh were taken away to the sheriff’s department for questioning. A police report indicates that on the way, Michael asked an officer something that quickly put him under suspicion. He asked, “What’s going to happen to my mom’s truck?”
Erin Moriarty: Isn’t that an odd thing to say after you just saw your mother on fire?
Michael Politte: I don’t think so.
Chrystal Politte: When you lose someone, you wanna hang onto things. To me that’s all it was, you know. And our mom loved that truck.
But it did raise eyebrows. And at the sheriff’s department, Michael was given a voice stress test.
Michael Politte: And then they told me that I failed.
Investigators also took Michael’s shoes so that an accelerant sniffing dog could examine them.
Michael Politte: They said that the dog alerted to my shoes to — an accelerant.
Erin Moriarty: How would you describe the tone of the questioning after the dogs alerted on your shoes, and after you failed this voice stress test?
Michael Politte: They wasn’t questioning me no more. … They were telling me that I did something.
Michael and Josh both insisted they didn’t know what happened to Rita, that they had stayed in Michael’s room all night. But investigators told them they didn’t believe them. The boys were questioned repeatedly. And, two days after the murder, Josh gave a videotaped statement, with an officer on each side and his mother present. That statement seemed to poke a hole in Michael’s account. He said he woke up to a noise in the middle of the night.
JOSH SANSOUCIE: I heard a little thud, and I thought I heard, like a — a woman’s voice …
OFFICER 1: Did Bernie wake up too, or did you —
JOSH SANSOUCIE: No.
OFFICER 2: — see Bernie in the room at that time?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: No.
OFFICER 2: Bernie wasn’t in bed?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: I didn’t see him …
OFFICER 2: Could you have seen him if he was?
OFFICER 1: You looked at the—
OFFICER 2: Is that yes or no?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: Yes.
OFFICER 2: OK …
OFFICER 2: So, there’s no doubt that he wasn’t in the bed? OK. And was he anywhere else in that bedroom?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: No.
Shortly after Josh gave that statement, on Dec. 7, 1998, 14-year-old Michael Politte was arrested for his mother’s murder.
Michael Politte: I always believed that I was gonna be found innocent because I didn’t have anything to do with what happened to my mother. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
“I DIDN’T MURDER MY MOTHER”
Erin Moriarty (looking at photo album): He looks like a really happy kid.
Melonie Politte: He was always really happy.
When Melonie and Chrystal learned that their 14-year-old brother had been arrested for their mother’s murder, they say they couldn’t believe it.
Melonie Politte: How were they coming up with that conclusion? … I just thought they were crazy.
Chuck and Patsy Skiles are Michael’s uncle and aunt. They live next door to where the crime took place. They also felt police had made a mistake.
Chuck Skiles: He didn’t do it and I want him cleared.
Patsy Skiles: You know, we was the first ones to see him … after it happened. He had no scratches, no nothin’ on him.
Chuck Skiles: He was always givin’ his mom a hug.
Patsy Skiles: He loved his mom.
But while Michael’s family believed in his innocence, the truth is, Michael was hardly the model child — something that even he admits.
Erin Moriarty: You failed seventh grade three times.
Michael Politte: Yeah, I was on my third year — because I became truant. I just wasn’t goin’.
Skipping school was one thing, but 10 months before the murder, things got so bad that Michael was hospitalized for behavioral issues after he threatened to kill his mother and himself.
Michael Politte: For whatever reason, I told her that I would put her six feet under just like her mom and dad.
Erin Moriarty: Did you mean that, Michael?
Michael Politte: No, I didn’t. And it’s the biggest regret of my life.
Melonie and Chrystal blame Michael’s misbehavior on their parents’ divorce.
Melonie Politte: Our dad would kind of put him in the middle.
Erin Moriarty: Michael was clearly an angry, troubled teenager.
Melonie Politte: Yeah, I think he was mad at our dad, for sure.
Erin Moriarty: Was he mad at your mom, as well?
Melonie Politte: No, I think — I mean, I know they didn’t always get along perfectly. I don’t think any parent and child does.
Three years passed with Michael in custody, awaiting trial. And then the prosecution came to him with a deal: plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and he’d spend a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Michael Politte: I rejected it.
Erin Moriarty: You didn’t think about it?
Michael Politte: No.
Erin Moriarty: Why not?
Michael Politte: ‘Cause I didn’t murder my mother.
In January 2002, Michael Politte, then 17 years old, went on trial. His life was on the line. The prosecutors and defense attorney who tried the case didn’t respond to “48 Hours”‘ calls, but Josh Hedgecorth — the current prosecutor of Washington County, where the murder took place — was willing to talk about the case.
Erin Moriarty: What was the most important evidence?
Josh Hedgecorth: The scientific evidence … And that would start with the shoes that he was wearing at the sheriff’s office.
Not only had a dog detected an accelerant on Michael’s shoes, according to the prosecution, later testing also confirmed the presence of gasoline on them. And there was testimony that an accelerant had been used to burn Rita’s body.
Josh Hedgecorth: And so, all of these components together I think solidified that he must have set the fire.
But Michael had told police that gasoline found on his shoes meant nothing, and that he and his friends would often set fires for fun.
Michael Politte: We all did that. … It was in — it was in the country.
In fact, Michael told police that just hours before the murder, he and his friend Josh used gasoline to set a fire on the railroad tracks near his house — before Rita got home.
But the prosecution used that admission as another piece of evidence against Michael. They argued the burn pattern on the tracks matched the burn pattern on Rita.
Linda Dickerson-Bell and Jonathan Peterson were jurors on the case.
Jonathan Peterson: I’m like, “It’s not looking good for him.”
Linda Dickerson-Bell: What they were telling us was that Michael had a problem with burning and that … he was the only person that could have done this.
The jurors never heard about Michael’s problems at school and that threat to his mother, but a witness testified about a disagreement that Michael had with his mother weeks before the murder. It was over money, and he sat flicking a lighter afterwards.
Michael Politte: It happened. But not in the way that the State portrayed it. … I was flickin’ the wheel on the lighter. That’s that.
Erin Moriarty: You weren’t threatening your mother with that?
Michael Politte: No.
And there was something even more damaging: the prosecution claimed that Michael had actually confessed to the crime during a suicide attempt at a juvenile detention center exactly one month after the murder. Three witnesses who worked there wrote in reports that Michael said, “I haven’t cared since … I killed my mom.” But Michael says that’s not what he said.
Erin Moriarty: When they asked you why you were trying to kill yourself, you say you said what?
Michael Politte: I haven’t cared since they killed my mom.
It’s the difference of one word. But that one word carried a lot of weight. And the jury would never hear from Michael, because when it was the defense’s turn, he didn’t take the stand.
And leaving the jury with even more unanswered questions was the fact that they were told that Josh, the other boy in the house that night, had been granted immunity.
Linda Dickerson-Bell: I kept waiting, thinking, “OK, well if he’s been given immunity then he’s got to have something to offer.”
But the jury never saw or heard from Josh at all. He wasn’t called to the stand, and they were never shown his videotaped statement. Michael’s sisters also weren’t called.
Linda Dickerson-Bell: I never really heard anybody in his defense say, “Michael didn’t do this.”
Instead, the defense hinged its case on the lack of direct evidence: no murder weapon had been found and, despite the violence of the attack, Michael had no injuries and no blood on his clothing. After three days of testimony, the case went to the jury.
Linda Dickerson-Bell: To hold someone’s life in your hand, have you ever done that? It’s not a pleasant thing to do. … I wanted to get it right.
But Dickerson-Bell and Peterson say they were left with so many questions — too many questions — and they felt pressured by other members of the jury.
Jonathan Peterson: I think everybody finally just got to me and just, like — you know, “We’re ready to go home.” And then I was like, “Hell, but, you’re ready to go home and this kid’s ready to go to prison?”
After more than four hours, the jury filed into the courtroom with their verdict: guilty of second-degree murder.
Linda Dickerson-Bell: I wept.
Erin Moriarty: Why?
Linda Dickerson-Bell (crying): Because it was wrong.
Michael was sentenced to life in prison.
Michael Politte: It was unbelievable. … I never thought it would happen.
Michael would spend years in a Missouri prison before a new team of lawyers would take his case and make it their mission to turn it around.
Megan Crane: The State essentially never really had any case against this kid. But the case that they even did have back at trial has been indisputably proven false.
After Michael Politte was convicted and sentenced to life at the age of 18, he was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary — once called “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.”
Michael Politte: Bein’ so young, I was a target. … I got in a fight my first day there … Dudes were trying to rape me.
Michael says he became desperate for some sense of safety.
Erin Moriarty: You became a skinhead?
Michael Politte: Yeah. Joined a gang.
Erin Moriarty: That’s where you got the tattoos?
Michael Politte: Yup. … It was somethin’ that … I felt like I needed to do to survive. … It’s not the way that I feel. It’s not the way that mom raised me. I just didn’t fit in.
Michael says he longed to prove his innocence and get out of prison. He needed to hire a lawyer, so he says he asked his dad for help.
Erin Moriarty: Did he?
Michael Politte: Nope.
Erin Moriarty: So how did you keep up any hope at all?
Michael Politte: I didn’t for a few years. I was a heroin addict — anytime I left my cell I was lookin’ for drugs. I was just self-medicatin’.
That’s the way things were — until Michael finally found something that gave him hope. Five years after his conviction, he wrote a letter to the Midwest Innocence Project, and they agreed to take his case. The organization worked on it for years and eventually, attorneys Tricia Bushnell, Megan Crane and Mark Emison became involved.
Megan Crane: Mike was convicted because he was a kid, pure and simple. … They said … he wasn’t emotional enough. … Trauma doesn’t look like what people think it should look like.
Bushnell, Crane and Emison picked apart the case against Michael. They say it was based on bad science, starting with the prosecution’s claim that an accelerant was used to set the fire that killed Rita.
Mark Emison: When the fire investigator came to the scene — they immediately determined it was a fuel-fed … fire — based on just visual patterns — just based on looking at the scene — which, at the time, violated gold standards of fire investigation. … There has to be lab testin’.
And lab testing was done on carpet samples from the crime scene. No accelerant was detected. The prosecution explained that away by saying it could have burned up, but defense attorney Megan Crane says that suggestion isn’t reasonable.
Megan Crane: There’s no scientific basis for that being possible.
Erin Moriarty: Do you believe that the jury believed that in fact there was an accelerant used to set Rita on fire?
Mark Emison: Absolutely. … The main case against Michael was that it was a gasoline fire … and … in order to attempt to tie Mike to the crime, the only physical evidence was the gasoline that the State alleged … was on his shoes.
But Michael’s new lawyers say that Michael’s shoes didn’t have gasoline on them, either. They say a chemical used in the shoe manufacturing process was wrongly identified as gasoline at trial. And even the Missouri State crime lab agrees. In a 2020 letter, officials say, “… it is now known that solvents found in footwear adhesives have similarities to gasoline.” But that “In the late 1990s, this knowledge was not widely known.”
Erin Moriarty: Could the dogs have been alerting to the chemicals used in the shoes?
Mark Emison: Absolutely.
Megan Crane: The jurors cared about the gas on the shoes. … They asked to see the shoes. … It was the nail in the coffin.
But what about Michael’s alleged confession at the juvenile detention center? Witnesses wrote that they heard him say, “I haven’t cared since … I killed my mom.” But Michael insists he said, “I haven’t cared since … they killed my mom.”
Tricia Bushnell: In the same way we talk about tunnel vision, people can hear what they want to hear. We’re talking about one word in a room where there’s lots of activity happening. … They have a kid in the detention center that they believe has probably committed this crime, right? … And so, that’s their view of him.
There is one big question that remains. What about Josh SanSoucie? Remember, the jury was told he got immunity, and there was that videotaped statement where he told police that he woke up in the middle of the night and Michael wasn’t there.
OFFICER 2: So, there’s no doubt that he wasn’t in the bed? OK. And was he anywhere else in that bedroom?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: No.
Now, many years after the crime, Josh is speaking publicly for the first time about what he says really happened that night.
Josh SanSoucie: I’ve spent the majority of my life just tryin’ to forget about it.
KEY WITNESS SPEAKS OUT
Josh SanSoucie: I’ve done pretty good just movin’ on with it. But, I mean, it’s still — it’s always there, you know?
Josh SanSoucie is now 39 years old. He says he’s never been quite the same since he woke up from that sleepover at Michael’s at the age of 15 and found himself in the middle of a murder investigation. He says he was questioned by police repeatedly for hours at a time.
Josh SanSoucie: Every time I’d tell ’em something, they would be like, “No, that’s not what happened. This is what happened.” … I remember tellin’ my mom. I said, “They keep saying that I’m lying.” I said, “I don’t even know if I’m telling the truth anymore.”
But the truth, Josh says, is that nothing out of the ordinary happened on that night in question.
Josh SanSoucie: It was just like a normal night.
JOSH SANSOUCIE (videotaped statement): And I couldn’t sleep very good that night. I was just kind of waking up. I woke up one time …
But what about that videotaped statement where Josh told police that he woke up in the middle of the night and Michael wasn’t there?
OFFICER 2: So, there’s no doubt that he wasn’t in the bed? OK. And was he anywhere else in that bedroom?
JOSH SANSOUCIE: No.
Josh SanSoucie: I don’t remember ever saying that. … And I feel like if I said that, then it was maybe at a weak point or somethin’.
Michael’s attorneys say they have seen this all too often in interrogations.
Tricia Bushnell: What we see in Josh’s interrogation is the result of hours and hours of interrogation … And every other time, he has never, ever said that that was what happened.
In a deposition right before Michael went on trial, Josh said that he never sat up from where he was sleeping on the floor and that, “It’s not that I did not see him in his bed. It’s I couldn’t see him in his bed.”
Josh SanSoucie: There’s no way I could see anything that’s on top of the bed.
So, why did Josh take that immunity deal?
Josh SanSoucie: I just wanted it because I knew they was gonna try to pin it on me or Bernie. … And I was, like, “Well, if they’re giving immunity, then maybe I don’t have anything to worry about, you know?
Michael’s lawyers say the prosecution was likely trying to get Josh to flip on Michael and the fact they didn’t even put Josh on the stand, says it all.
Megan Crane: They didn’t call him because it wasn’t gonna go well for them. … He had nothing helpful to say for the State.
Erin Moriarty: Why didn’t the defense call Josh?
Megan Crane: That’s a great question, Erin. And there’s a lotta great questions about what the defense didn’t do and who they didn’t call.
Michael’s trial attorney was a public defender back then. In a court affidavit, he admits that Michael’s case was the first homicide case that he had tried on his own. And that today, he would handle his representation of Michael differently.
Michael’s new legal team was committed to getting him out of prison. They filed court documents suggesting an alternative suspect: Michael’s father, Edward Politte.
Michael Politte: I believe he is responsible for what happened to my mother.
If that’s true, that means Michael’s own father stood by and let his son take the fall for a murder that he was behind. Michael’s sisters say their father was furious over the financial terms of the divorce. A judge had finalized them just four days before the murder.
Melonie Politte: She got half of his retirement.
Chrystal Politte: Maintenance —
Melonie Politte: Maintenance —
Chrystal Politte: — child support.
Melonie Politte: Child support. Alimony. … And the one thing that I remember about growing up with our dad is you don’t mess with his money. You just don’t do it.
Chrystal Politte: He had an outburst — in the court. … He said, “You’ll never live to see a dime of that money.”
Police did interview Edward Politte after the murder. He had an alibi. He was home, more than 80 miles away, at the time of the murder. But Michael’s defense team says investigators didn’t look hard enough.
Megan Crane: They didn’t at all investigate the possibility that perhaps Ed did this with someone else.
And Michael says he believes his dad did arrange the murder and had help.
Michael Politte: I think he hired Johnny to murder my mother.
“Johnny” is Johnny Politte, Edward’s cousin. Michael’s legal team identified witnesses who place Johnny near the crime scene on the morning of the murder, just as first responders were arriving.
Larry Lee: Well, I had heard sirens … and as I’m comin’ up the road and I’m approaching … the railroad tracks, Johnny Politte was walkin’ down the railroad tracks.
Larry Lee is one of those witnesses. He has known Johnny for years.
Larry Lee: As he’s walkin’ up to my truck, he asked me if I heard about Rita. … He said, “Somebody killed her.” And I’m like, “Dude, what?”
About a week later, Larry’s wife Carolyn says Johnny came to their door.
Carolyn Lee: And it was like 6 o’clock in the morning. He said – “I need to know what you know about Rita’s death.” … He said, “Me and Edward are doin’ our own investigation. And we heard you were up at the store talkin’ about it.” … And I said, “Johnny I don’t know nothin’.” … “No, we need to know what you know,” he said. And I said, “You know, I think it’s time for you to go.”
Erin Moriarty: Were you scared?
Carolyn Lee: A little bit.
Erin Moriarty: Did the two of you talk to investigators about this?
Carolyn Lee: No. … We think back now, and we wish we would’ve.
Larry Lee: And I ain’t sayin’ he had anything to do with anything, either. I don’t know. But, you know.
Another man places Johnny Politte’s truck near the same spot that Larry Lee says he ran into Johnny on the morning of the murder. In an affidavit filed by Michael’s team, the man says he saw the truck just as emergency vehicles were coming down the road.
Former investigator Tammy Nash says she doesn’t remember hearing that Johnny Politte had been seen that morning, but she does recall something that happened in the days after the murder — once the crime scene had been released.
Tammy Nash: Somebody came into the sheriff’s department … and said that they had found a tire iron, or tire tool or something … in the closet.
Erin Moriarty: Whose closet?
Tammy Nash: Michael’s closet.
Police records show the person who found that tire tool was Johnny Politte.
Erin Moriarty: Could you have missed that in your first search?
Tammy Nash: No. No.
Erin Moriarty: Are you absolutely sure —
Tammy Nash: I am positive I did not miss that.
Erin Moriarty: If wasn’t there when you searched, what does that mean?
Tammy Nash: That somebody placed it there.
Tammy went and retrieved the tire tool from Michael’s closet. It was later ruled out as the murder weapon.
Erin Moriarty: Do you believe that tire iron was put in your closet to set you up?
Michael Politte: I do.
Johnny and Edward Politte didn’t respond to “48 Hours”‘ request for an interview. Neither has been charged in the case. It’s been years since Michael and his sisters have spoken to their father, but they say they did ask him whether he had anything to do with their mother’s murder and he denied it.
Tricia Bushnell: It’s not our job and it’s not our focus to say who did commit this crime. But what we do know is it was not Michael Politte.
And while Michael’s lawyers were trying to prove that, the case would take a turn.
MICHAEL POLITTE (outside prison): I never thought this day would come.
Michael Politte: Best day in the world. It was amazing.
A SECOND CHANCE
Tricia Bushnell: It’s hard — it’s real hard here in Missouri — to get these convictions overturned, it’s a battle.
Michael Politte’s legal team was shut down by appeals courts at every turn.
Melonie Politte (crying): It is a constant fight with, you know, Goliath really is what it feels like.
Despite the letdowns, Michael and his sisters kept up hope that one day he would be freed. And in 2021, there was an unexpected development: a bill passed in Missouri giving juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes a second chance.
Michael Politte: It gave me an immediate parole hearing.
Michael went before the parole board asking for his release.
Michael Politte: I told ’em I was innocent, and I told ’em this is why I’m innocent, and this is why you should believe I’m innocent.
It worked. On April 22, 2022, Melonie and Chrystal brought friends and family and a change of clothes to the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
Melonie Politte: It was a really great day.
Chrystal Politte: It was a dream come true, really.
On that day, Michael Politte walked out of prison. Incarcerated at just 14-years-old, he was now 38.
Michael Politte (outside prison): Where’s my lawyers?
Michael Politte (outside of prison): It’s overwhelming to see all the love. All the nights sitting in my cell, wondering what it would be like to be out here and have this moment, and have it finally come true — it’s awesome. … Yup. It’s finally here. … I’m free.
Michael says he felt his mom’s presence when a bird flew by overhead.
Michael Politte (outside prison, looking up at the sky): Hi mom.
Michael Politte (outside prison): She’s always in my thoughts. She’s always in my mind. And everything I do and everything that I’m processing today is guided by her.
Michael left prison that day doing one of the things he enjoyed most before he went in — riding a bike.
Michael Politte (outside prison): We’re gonna take a bike ride from the parking lot to the railroad tracks. … I’m leaving here the same way that I came in here, riding a bicycle. … Justice for Rita. Let’s go. Let’s go, man (crowd cheers).
Michael Politte: (Laughs) It felt good. It was the best bike ride in the world.
Following his release, Michael moved in with his sister, Melonie. He started getting those reminders of prison, his tattoos, covered up with new art. He also found a job as a carpenter and got his driver’s license.
Erin Moriarty: You’re now out. Is that enough?
Michael Politte: No, it ain’t enough.
Erin Moriarty: Because as you sit right now, you are a convicted felon on parole.
Michael Politte: Yep.
Erin Moriarty: You have a criminal record that says you killed your mother.
Michael Politte: Yep.
Michael wants to clear his name. And it just might happen because Josh Hedgecorth, the current prosecutor in the county where the murder took place, has filed a motion asking for Michael’s conviction to be overturned.
Josh Hedgecorth: To me, it all — always comes back to the science.
Hedgecorth agrees with Michael’s attorneys that the scientific evidence used to convict Michael is problematic.
Josh Hedgecorth: So, I don’t believe that Michael received a fair trial. … I can’t say that the prosecutor at the time knew what he was putting on was false … It just shouldn’t have been presented.
Erin Moriarty: Could you retry Michael Politte for the murder of his mother based on the evidence you have today?
Josh Hedgecorth: On the evidence I have today … I don’t believe I would file this case.
But while the local prosecutor believes Michael’s conviction should be thrown out, another public official, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, is fighting it.
Megan Crane: In every exoneration in Missouri, the attorney general fights it because, they say, “We have to respect, honor, and protect the verdict of these jurors” … Well, that goes out the window when the jurors themselves want this verdict overturned.
In sworn affidavits, five jurors have questioned whether Michael got a fair trial — including Jonathan Peterson and Linda Dickerson-Bell.
Linda Dickerson-Bell: I do not believe that Michael Politte killed his mother. … But I don’t know how to fix it.
The attorney general’s office didn’t reply to “48 Hours”‘ request for comment, but in a court filing, they say Michael “cannot meet the standard for actual innocence.” And the attorney general has argued that the evidence against Johnny and Edward Politte would have been inadmissible at trial.
Michael hopes that a judge will hear the case and decide to overturn his conviction, but in the meantime, prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth has revealed to “48 Hours” that the local sheriff’s department has reopened the investigation into Rita’s murder.
Josh Hedgecorth: We wanna do the right thing. If someone else did this, we wanna know that. … even if it’s new evidence that it was Michael.
Neither Hedgecorth, nor the local sheriff, would comment on the specifics of the investigation, including whether Johnny Politte or Edward Politte are persons of interest.
Josh Hedgecorth: I feel bad for Bernie and his family. I mean, everything they had to go through. Bernie lost his whole childhood.
Josh SanSoucie hasn’t seen Michael Politte since they were kids, but they hope to one day reunite. The night of that sleepover and its aftermath has haunted Josh all these years.
Erin Moriarty: What would you say to him?
Michael Politte: I’m sorry. And that, you know, he didn’t do anything wrong.
In Potosi, Missouri, not far from where the murder took place, Rita’s truck has sat all these years.
Her family says they held onto it because it’s one of the only things they have left of her.
Michael Politte: That’s her truck. You know, it’s a part of her. That belongs to her.
They hope to fix it up and get it running again.
Michael Politte: We’re gonna get justice for her. I believe that one day. We’re gonna get justice for Rita.
Earlier this month, Washington County Prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth lost his bid for reelection.
Separately, the Missouri Supreme Court has temporarily halted Hedgecorth’s effort to overturn Politte’s conviction.
Produced by Stephanie Slifer and Emily Wichick. Sara Ely Hulse is the development producer. Doreen Schechter, Joan Adelman and Gary Winter are the editors. Lourdes Aguiar is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.