For Michael Politte, who’s still in prison for the 1998 murder of his mother Rita, a conviction may have literally been the difference between dotting an “I” or crossing a “T.”
On tonight’s episode of Unlocking The Truth, MTV’s resident exoneration experts Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao looked more critically at a statement delivered by Michael shortly after Rita’s death in which he seemingly admitted to killing his mother. Police have records of Michael — in the heat of an anxiety- and depression-fueled spiral — observing “…that’s when I killed my mom.” Two problems, though: First, Michael still insists he said “they,” not “I.” Secondly, without context, the confession could have been misinterpreted.
And yet, the bulk of Michael’s conviction, and his fate as a free man, has been dictated by this disputed piece of evidence.
Nagao and Ferguson talked to Dr. Robert Leonard, a forensic linguist, to look into why one sentence could have been so damning for Politte. Then a teenager, Michael had been under tremendous stress before the apparent admission and even placed in a psychiatric ward. This could have all informed his language and attitude, Leonard said.
“This is the establishment of a scheme of a narrative,” he noted, especially since it was also based on a flawed voice stress analysis test that preceded the alleged disclosure. This type of assessment only works about half of the time, he said.
Moreover, Leonard argued that even if Michael had said “…that’s when I killed my mom,” it isn’t as much as a confession as much as an inference of a confession by police. Conversational context is paramount, he noted, and unavailable — Michael could have been speaking as if other people were talking about him.
But once police got the sound bite, they didn’t push for more.
This, Midwest Innocence Project legal director Trisha Bushnell noted, represents a fundamental flaw in the American justice system: It’s not so much about building the most solid case, it’s a race to get to one overwhelmingly pejorative detail that could get a jury to sway one way or the other. Michael’s words should have been the base for additional follow-up conversations or investigations; instead, they became the prosecution’s exclusive weaponry.
As Bushnell put it: “Why give [Michael] a chance to explain it away?”
Police also argued that Michael's temperament in the immediate hours after Rita’s death implicated him as the killer. Sheriff Ronnie Skiles said Michael was totally devoid of emotion after Rita’s murder and spoke way too casually with his friend Josh Sansoucie. He also asked things that seemed too practical given the circumstances: Who gets Rita’s truck? Was her throat really slit? Skiles said he knew what killers were really like, and that they didn’t act this way.
Ferguson, on the other hand, saw the connection as false equivalence, and said Skiles’ personal opinion of a murderer’s temperament carried entirely too much weight. Michael could have been in shock, and his questions could have been a small fraction of a much more intensive conversation.
This was all most troubling because Skiles had reason to believe that Michael's dad Ed killed Rita, but “Once [Michael] admitted to it, what can you do?”
As Nagao pointed out, the whole process seemed like textbook tunnel vision on the part of the police.
Further, the Polittes' former neighbor Melissa Mercer gave Ferguson and Nagao more reason to believe Michael was innocent. Mercer said her mother recalled a guy showing up to her front door one morning in December 1998 and asking her incessantly if she was Rita. Mercer’s mother said no repeatedly and, shaken, finally pointed out that Rita lived just down the way.
Not long after, Rita was gone.
Mercer believes the shadowy figure could have been a hired killer who’d been commissioned by Ed. She pointed out Ed had a huge motive — the division of assets after his divorce from Rita did not go in his favor, and she got most of everything. Mercer said her mother still feels guilty for potentially leading Rita’s killer straight to the woman’s home.
Has the new look into Michael's speech given you a set of fresh eyes, and do you see his case any differently? Share your thoughts on the latest Unlocking The Truth episode, and be sure to catch a brand-new episode next Wednesday at 11/10c on MTV!