Michael Politte wins parole; will leave Missouri prison this April after 20 years
Twenty years after he was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager, Michael Politte has been given news that once seemed impossible: He has been granted a release date and will leave prison this spring.
Politte was notified Tuesday that he will be released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in April. His sister Melonie Politte said he called her yesterday after hearing the news, with great excitement in his voice. “The first words out of his mouth was, ‘I'm getting out of here on April 23!’” she said.
By the time of his release, Mike Politte will be 38 years old. He was 14 when he was first arrested and 18 when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
And in Politte’s case, the parole board’s blessing has special poignancy: He has long insisted that he is innocent — and he plans to continue fighting to clear his name.
“I'm gonna throw punches,” he told St. Louis on the Air last fall. “I'm gonna keep throwing punches if the Supreme Court denies me, I'm gonna throw another punch. I'm not gonna stop fighting. And justice for Rita.”
Politte was convicted of murdering his mother, Rita, in rural Washington County, Missouri, and then setting her body ablaze. For his sisters, Chrystal and Melonie, the double blow of their mother’s death and their little brother being almost immediately locked up was devastating.
“I didn't know if I was gonna make it through the day, every day,” Melonie Politte recalled on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “A lot of crying, a lot of sadness. I was angry.”
Compounding the sisters’ distress: Both were convinced from day one that the sheriff’s office had arrested the wrong person. But once law enforcement settled on the 14-year-old as the most likely killer, officials failed to seriously consider other suspects.
“The police weren't listening when we were telling them, ‘Look at this person, look at this person, you're not doing your job,’” Melonie said. “Then they just pretty much shut us out after that.”
Experts have pointed to numerous problems with Michael’s trial, including the fact that the forensic evidence used to convict him had been disproven even at the time. They note he received a perfunctory defense; his overworked public defender presented a defense that lasted just a half-day and failed to challenge key pieces of evidence. Multiple jurors have said they no longer believe Politte is guilty and have filed affidavits in his support.
The parole board’s decision, which follows a Jan. 20 hearing, does not consider any questions of innocence, by design. It’s only meant to consider how former juvenile offenders like Politte have matured over time and whether their record in prison suggests they are ready to be released to the community.
“The primary driving question for the parole board is supposed to be: Can this person be released safely into society without risk to the community or themselves,” explained Megan Crane, co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. “In Mike's case? That was an easy question.”
Politte’s petition to the Missouri Supreme Court, asking justices to appoint a special master to weigh the evidence against him, was filed last fall by Crane’s office along with the Midwest Innocence Project.
“Mike is thrilled to be coming home,” Crane said. “But parole has never been the event for Mike. For Mike, exoneration is the event — and more for his mother than for him. He wants justice for his mother. That is his driving goal.”
By April, though, he’ll be able to pursue that quest not from prison, but from his sister’s home in Affton. She said she is ready for him and can’t wait for his arrival.
“It's sad that he's had to have this life,” Melonie Politte said. “It's not fair to him. But even though our lives turned out like this, he has really persevered and done such good things, even behind bars. … I'm proud I can call him my little brother. And I can't wait to hug him for longer than five seconds.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.