News Briefs

Missouri Supreme Court finds prosecutor has no jurisdiction in Washington County innocence case

By: - February 14, 2023 2:27 pm

The Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent).

A 2021 state law intended to help innocent people get out of prison doesn’t apply in a case where the conviction was obtained after a change of venue, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In one of the first appellate cases involving a law allowing prosecutors to bring new evidence forward, the Supreme Court ruled that the motion to overturn the conviction must be made by the prosecuting attorney in the jurisdiction where the case was tried, not the prosecutor’s office in the county where the case began.

“The language…has a plain and ordinary meaning that permits no construction,” Judge Patricia Breckinridge wrote in an unanimous opinion. “The statute authorizes only a prosecuting attorney in the jurisdiction in which a person was convicted of an offense to file a motion to vacate or set aside the judgment of conviction of such offense.” 

As a result, the court ordered St. Francois County Associate Circuit Judge Robin Fulton to dismiss the motion by the Washington County prosecutor to vacate the 2002 murder conviction of Michael Politte.

Politte was a juvenile when was certified to stand trial as an adult and charged in June 1999 in Washington County with the second-degree murder of his mother. He was granted a change of venue a month later to St. Francois County. The Washington County prosecuting attorney handled the case, including his trial in April 2002.

Politte was released on parole in April 2022 after serving 20 years in prison.

Citing new analysis that refuted evidence from the original case, Washington County Prosecutor Joshua Hedgecorth filed a motion in May to overturn the conviction. The Attorney General’s office intervened, arguing that the law only allows such a motion from the prosecuting attorney in the county where the final conviction was obtained.

Attorneys for Politte challenged the intervention from the attorney general, which has inserted itself in every case brought under the 2021 law, always arguing against freedom for those convicted.

In the case, argued just three weeks ago, Tricia Bushnell, executive director for the Midwest Innocence Project, argued that the attorney general overstepped when he intervened in Politte’s case. Breckinridge’s decision did not rule on that question, noting that the procedural issue requiring the prosecutor of the jurisdiction where the case was tried to make the motion was sufficient to decide against Politte.

Reached for comment Tuesday while in a St. Louis court for a different innocence case, Bushnell said she had not yet had a chance to read the decision. 

In her decision, Breckinridge wrote that the court must follow the plain meaning of the law or prosecutors would be challenging convictions from all over the state.

“Holding otherwise would lead to an absurd result as it would remove any limitation on a prosecuting or circuit attorney authorized to file the motion and, consequently, a prosecuting attorney in any jurisdiction in the state could file a…motion so long as he or she filed it in the jurisdiction of conviction,” Breckinridge wrote.

The Independent’s Rebecca Rivas contributed to this story. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.