What would you do if you were convicted of a crime — murder, assault or anything particularly heinous — that you didn’t commit? It’s worth your while to at least consider the possibility, as Ryan Ferguson, who spent 10 years behind bars for a homicide he had nothing to do with, estimates there could be up to 120,000 Americans who are wrongfully jailed.
Ferguson, who’s spearheading MTV’s new Unlocking the Truth, isn’t wasting a second of his freedom post-absolution and has teamed up with Eva Nagao of The Exoneration Project to investigate convictions that just don’t seem right. Ferguson said on the show’s premiere that there were more exonerations in 2015 than ever before, which gave him hope that he and Nagao could make some headway on the cases of Kalvin Michael Smith, who was jailed for horrific abuse of a pregnant woman, and Michael Politte, who was sentenced for killing his mother and setting her body on fire.
Ferguson, who was arrested at 19 after just beginning college, was pulled over one day out the blue by unmarked cars. He was ultimately convicted for the strangling murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt and was put behind bars largely because of testimony delivered by his friend, who was in a drunken blackout the night of Heitholt’s murder. Nevertheless, his friend confessed to the crime and implicated Ferguson too. Ferguson's acquaintance eventually realized he’d been coerced by police to make the admission, and even though there was no DNA at the crime scene that connected Ferguson to Heitholt’s murder, Ferguson paid the price…until he was 29.
It seemed only fitting that the first case Ferguson and Nagao moved to tackle on the Unlocking The Truth premiere — Politte’s — took Ferguson right back to his old prison housing unit, where Politte was also being held.
Politte was just 14 in 1998 when he was arrested in Mineral Point, Missouri and charged with the second-degree murder of his mother Rita. She’d been bludgeoned in the head in the family’s trailer with a blunt object, and her body was set on fire. While there seemed to be some evidence pointing to Politte as the reasonable culprit — he was a recreational arsonist and may have admitted to the murder at one point while incarcerated — there were also too many red flags to ignore.
With the help of Trisha Bushnell, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, Ferguson and Nagao spent the episode looking more deeply into Politte’s case. More specifically, they talked to Politte’s two sisters, Melonie and Chyrstal, and his aunt Patsy and uncle Chuck, who all insisted Politte has been the victim of a faulty investigation that’s based on unsubstantiated evidence and the overlooking of one critical piece of information: There was someone else near Rita’s property the day of her murder.
The case, the group concluded, has been based on a stress analysis test that police administered immediately after taking Politte into custody. A terrified teenager who’d just seen his mother’s body mangled, Politte naturally failed the exam, and even though Bushnell noted VSAs are widely criticized for being unreliable and are inadmissible in court, police were able to build a convincing argument around it.
Now, the team has only one shot to accrue all the information they can to make a formal appeal, the first conducted on Politte’s behalf. If the case isn’t persuasive, he’ll essentially lose any chance of becoming a free man.
Melonie and Chrystal teared up as they recounted the morning of their mother’s murder, when Michael called them to the house. They said he told them he remembered waking up and smelling smoke, only to wander to his mother’s bedroom to witness the slaughter. They said they’ve since felt a heaviness and have spent nearly 20 years afraid to be happy out of fear it will make their brother feel slighted.
With respect to the case, Melonie admitted she had suspicions police had overlooked her father as a suspect. He and Rita had been going through a divorce in the months leading up to Rita’s murder, and his relationships with his children have since carried an enduring strain. Melonie and Chrystal remember getting a joke video from their father one year that documents a man gifting his wife with a brand new car on Christmas, only for it to explode when she settles into the driver’s seat and turns the key.
And as far as Patsy was concerned, there’s no getting around the detail that Politte left the crime scene unscathed. Police said Rita put up a fight before her murder, and Patsy noted Politte didn’t have a single scratch or mark on him in the aftermath. Further, Politte noted his mother’s fingernails — which might have had DNA traces of her assailant beneath them — were largely ignored by police.
Moving forward, the group is committed to looking more closely at the man they say was wandering the fields behind the family’s trailer the morning of the murder. It was completely unusual for anyone to be traveling through the area, especially so early in the morning, and while the person’s identity remains temporarily steeped in shadow, its unveiling could mean a breakthrough for the case.
What did you think of the Unlocking the Truth premiere, and what were your impressions of Politte’s case? Do you think that Melonie’s right, and that her father needs to be investigated more thoroughly as a suspect? Share your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to catch another episode on Wednesday at 11/10c.