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Challenge to Politte conviction could clarify exoneration statute

Scott Lauck//January 24, 2023

Challenge to Politte conviction could clarify exoneration statute

Scott Lauck//January 24, 2023

Less than two years after state lawmakers created a procedure for prosecutors to undo wrongful convictions, the Missouri Supreme Court is confronting questions that the statute’s language doesn’t clearly answer.

The high court heard arguments on Jan. 24 in the case of Michael Politte, who argues that he is innocent of the murder of his mother in 1998. While the Washington County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office isn’t ready to declare Politte to be innocent, it does argue that the conviction should be set aside now that the scientific evidence against him has collapsed.

However, while Rita Politte’s murder occurred in Washington County and that county’s prosecutor pursued the charges, the 2002 trial itself was held in St. Francois County Circuit Court after Politte requested a change of venue. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office argues that, under the wording of the new statute, only the St. Francois County prosecutor can seek to throw out Politte’s conviction.

Attorneys for Politte and the Washington County prosecutor, however, argue that the attorney general’s reading of the statute would lead to absurd results, leaving potentially tainted convictions in the hands of prosecutors whose offices had no role in the original case — particularly in rural Missouri counties where such changes of venue are common.

The argument is one of several issues Politte’s case raises about the 2021 statute, which created a formal mechanism for prosecutors to ask courts to vacate convictions they believe to be wrong. Among other things, the parties dispute who represents the interests of the state, the extent to which the attorney general should be involved in the proceedings and whether the matter is part of the original criminal case or whether it should be regarded as a separate civil filing.

“I don’t care what anyone gets called,” Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson said during arguments. “I would like to have lawyers on both sides so that we can get a fair cut of the law and somebody to argue the facts. So how do we do that?”

Politte’s mother died from a fire in her home in 1998, when Politte was 14. He was convicted of second-degree murder based on evidence that gasoline residue was on his shoes, tying him to the suspected arson. He was sentenced to life in prison.

However, a later examination by a private forensic expert found no such gasoline, and the Missouri State Crime Lab eventually agreed that no ignitable liquids were identified on the shoes. Washington County Prosecuting Attorney John I. Jones IV filed a motion in Politte’s original criminal case saying he was “erroneously convicted based upon false evidence” and that the conviction should be set aside.

Jones told the Supreme Court that the statute — which says “a prosecuting or circuit attorney, in the jurisdiction in which a person was convicted of an offense,” may file the motion to vacate or set aside the conviction — is ambiguous.

“If I go to Cole County, I don’t think that I could file it there just because I’m standing there and I happen to be a prosecuting attorney,” he said.

Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project, who argued for Politte, added that the local prosecutor who brought the case has the duty — and bears the political risk — of correcting an error brought in the name of that community. The attorney general’s office, she argued, plays only a “limited role” and is not meant to represent the state.

The attorney general’s office — initially under Eric Schmitt and now under Andrew Bailey following Schmitt’s election to the U.S. Senate — argues that Politte’s conviction should remain final. It also argues that the attorney general, rather than the local prosecutor, represents the interests of the state because that prosecutor is effectively acting as an attorney for the defendant.

Andrew Crane, an assistant attorney general, argued that while the prosecutor can bring the motion, “it doesn’t mean the prosecutor’s reading of the law is right, that the facts they believe are true or that the outcome they want is just.”

The case is State ex rel. Bailey v. Fulton, SC99813.

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