Missouri Supreme Court hears AG’s opposition to prosecutor’s jurisdiction in innocence claim

The court’s decision in Michael Politte’s case could define the state’s attorney general’s role in cases where local prosecutors file motions to set aside convictions

By: - January 24, 2023 11:28 am

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City (photo courtesy of FLICKR/David Shane, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday from the state’s attorney general opposing yet another local prosecutor’s attempt to argue the innocence of a man convicted of murder.

This time the case was for Michael Politte, a man who was charged with murdering his mother in 1999 when he was 15. 

In May, former Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Joshua Hedgecorth filed a motion arguing that Politte was “erroneously convicted.”

“Michael Politte spent 23 years in prison for the murder of his mother, Rita Politte, based on physical evidence that has now been scientifically proven to be false,” Hedgecorth wrote in his motion.

Politte was released on parole in April. 

Previously, if elected prosecutors believed a person was wrongfully convicted, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. 

A state law passed in May 2021 changed that, giving prosecutors a pathway to present evidence of innocence to a judge. Hedgecorth filed his motion a year later, and it’s among three of such cases so far. 

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office — previously under Eric Schmitt and now under Andrew Bailey — has vehemently opposed the prosecutors’ motions.

Tuesday was no exception. 

The attorney general’s team argued that the Washington County prosecutor didn’t have the jurisdiction to file the motion.

While Politte was charged in Washington County, his trial took place in St. Francois County. However, the Washington County prosecuting attorney still tried the case. 

A jury found Politte guilty of second-degree murder in 1999, and the St. Francois Circuit Court sentenced him to life in prison. 

Yet, it was clear by the Supreme Court judges’ questions to Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane on Tuesday that this case is also an opportunity to finally define the attorney general’s role in these new innocence proceedings — something that local judges and prosecutors have struggled to understand. 

Though the law clearly states that the prosecutor — and not the attorney general — represents the state, the attorney general has been allowed to take an outsized role in these cases.

Did the attorney general’s office have the authority to challenge Hedgecorth’s jurisdiction in the first place, under the new law?

Tricia Bushnell, executive director for the Missouri Innocence Project, argued Tuesday that the new state law gave the attorney general a “limited role” in these cases, and he overstepped when he asked for a change of venue in Politte’s case. 

“We do not concede that the attorney general had the authority to bring this matter before this court,” Bushnell said. “They are not a party… When we look at how the Missouri constitution and statutes have always held that the criminal trials, the criminal matters are the role of the prosecutor.”

Crane argued the new law doesn’t limit the attorney general’s authority to intervene and appear in any case where the state has an interest.

“And as we just discussed, the state’s interests are at stake,” Crane said.

Hedgecorth, a Democrat, lost his re-election in November, and the county’s new prosecuting attorney John Jones, a Republican, represented the state on Tuesday. 

In an interview with The Independent on Monday, Jones said he hasn’t “made any decision” on whether or not to continue to pursue the motion to vacate Politte’s murder conviction, if his office prevails in the Supreme Court case. 

“The case is still under review,” Jones said.

The case

On the morning of Dec. 5, 1998, Politte, then 14, found his mother’s body face-up on the floor and her body on fire, according to Hedgecorth’s motion.

During his 2002 trial, the prosecution relied on expert testimony that claimed scientific analysis confirmed the presence of gasoline on Politte’s shoes, Hedgecorth stated. 

“This was the only physical evidence that connected Michael Politte to his mother’s murder,” the motion states. “This evidence laid the foundation for the case against him.”

In 2020, the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) Crime Lab re-evaluated the chromatography analysis of Politte’s shoes and concluded there were no ignitable liquids present. 

“With that analysis, the singular physical evidence against Politte is now universally recognized as false,” the highway patrol analysis states. 

Similarly, the trial expert testimony that this fire was started with an accelerant – which made the alleged gasoline on Politte’s shoes damning evidence of guilt — has been proven false as well. 

After learning about the chromatography analysis, Hedgecorth wrote that his office undertook a review of the case against Politte and has determined that, in light of the scientific evidence, his conviction “cannot be sustained.” Hedgecorth said the new state law allowed him to file the motion.

“Mr. Politte has maintained his actual innocence since the morning of his mother’s tragic murder,” Hedgecorth states. “He has never wavered.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.

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