When Josh SanSoucie went for a sleepover at a friend's house back in 1998 at the age of 15, he had no idea he would land in the middle of a murder investigation. More than 20 years later, Josh, now 39 years old, is giving his first TV interview to "48 Hours" about that night in Hopewell, Missouri that changed his life forever and landed his friend in prison.
"48 Hours'" correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on the case in "The Case Against Michael Politte."
The story begins on Dec. 4, 1998, when Josh SanSoucie and his schoolmate, then-14-year-old, met up at a general store in the small town of Hopewell, Missouri, where they lived. Michael invited Josh to sleep over and the pair headed to Michael's house to play chess and video games. When they got bored around midnight, they say they headed down to the railroad tracks near Michael's house and Michael set a fire, something Michael says the kids in his rural neighborhood often did for fun. It wasn't long before the boys say they returned to Michael's house. Soon after, Michael's mom, 40-year-old Rita Politte, returned home from working at a local bar and everyone turned in for bed. Michael and Josh say that just before 6:30 a.m., they awoke to a smoke-filled house. The pair say they crawled towards the front door, while Michael yelled for his mom. He didn't get a reply.
"Michael, what are you feeling at this point?" asked Moriarty.
"Panic, fear," Michael replied.
When Michael approached his mother's room, he says he was met with a grisly sight: "I seen her laying. … I seen blood on her legs, and she was on fire from the waist up. … I didn't know what to do."
Rita Politte had been brutally murdered — bludgeoned and set on fire — all while the two teens said they were sleeping a couple of rooms away. Both Josh and Michael were questioned by authorities repeatedly in the hours and days following the murder. They both denied any involvement, but two days after the crime, Michael was arrested for his mother's murder. Investigators said Michael Politte showed a lack of emotion in the wake of the crime. They also said an accelerant sniffing dog alerted to Michael's shoes on the morning of the murder, and that he failed a voice stress test. Voice stress tests are controversial, and the results are often inadmissible in court.
Also, prior to Michael Politte's arrest, Josh SanSoucie gave a videotaped interview to police that seemed to poke a hole in Michael's account of the evening. Josh had slept on the floor next to where Michael had been sleeping in his bed. In that videotaped interview, Josh indicated that he woke up to a noise in the middle of the night, and Michael wasn't in the room.
"I don't remember ever saying that," Josh SanSoucie told "48 Hours" in his first television interview since then. "And I feel like if I said that, then it was maybe at a weak point or something."
Josh now says that although he did wake up briefly in the night, he never saw Michael missing from the room. He told "48 Hours" that the police questioning was so relentless that he remembers telling his mom at the time, "They keep saying that I'm lying. I don't even know if I'm telling the truth anymore."
In a deposition before Michael went on trial, Josh did clarify his statement. Josh said that he never sat up from where he was sleeping on the floor and that, "It's not that I did not see him in his bed. It's I couldn't see him in his bed."
In January 2002, three years after the crime, Michael Politte's trial began. The prosecution presented evidence that an accelerant had been used to set Rita Politte on fire and the jury was told how an accelerant had been detected on Michael's shoes. The jury also heard about that fire Michael had set on the railroad tracks prior to the murder.
But perhaps the most damaging evidence against Michael at trial was the prosecution's claim that Michael had confessed to the crime during a suicide attempt while incarcerated. Three witnesses who worked at the juvenile detention center wrote in reports that Michael said, "I haven't cared since … I killed my mom." But Michael maintains he said, "I haven't cared since they killed my mom," alluding to whoever the real killer(s) might be. The jury did not hear from Michael, however, because when it was the defense's turn to present their case, he didn't take the stand. Instead, the defense argued there was no direct evidence tying Michael to the crime: no murder weapon had been found and, despite the violence of the attack, Michael had no injuries and no blood on his clothing.
Josh SanSoucie did not testify, and the jury never heard or saw his videotaped interview with police.
After a three-day trial, the case went to the jury. Deliberations lasted over four hours and then the jury found Michael Politte guilty of second-degree murder. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Although the trial was over, Michael Politte's fight to clear his name wasn't. Five years after his conviction, Michael wrote to the Midwest Innocence Project, and they agreed to take on his case. The organization worked on it for years and, eventually, attorneys Tricia Bushnell, Megan Crane and Mark Emison became involved.
Michael Politte's new team of defense attorneys picked apart the case against him.
"Mike was convicted because he was a kid, pure and simple," Megan Crane told "48 Hours." "They said … he wasn't emotional enough. … Trauma doesn't look like what people think it should look like."
Michael's new attorneys also identified what they say are problems with the scientific evidence used to convict Michael, starting with the prosecution's claim that an accelerant was used to set Rita on fire. They say there is no proof an accelerant was used in the commission of the crime.
The attorneys also say that there is no proof of an accelerant being present on Michael's shoes. Instead, attorney Mark Emison says a chemical used in the shoe manufacturing process was wrongly identified as gasoline and even the Missouri state crime lab agrees. In a 2020 letter, the crime lab says, "… it is now known that solvents found in footwear adhesives have similarities to gasoline. … But that in the late 1990s, this knowledge was not widely known."
Michael Politte claims he knows who is really responsible for his mother's murder. His attorneys believe police didn't properly investigate the crime, and they have filed court documents that name alternative suspects.
For years, Michael's team of lawyers fought unsuccessfully to get his conviction overturned but then in 2021, there came an unexpected development. A bill passed in Missouri giving juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes a second chance. As a result, Michael was granted parole. In April 2022, he walked out of a Missouri state prison. Incarcerated at just 14-years-old, he was now 38. But Michael tells Moriarty in this week's "48 Hours" that his freedom is not enough because he still has a felony conviction for his mother's murder on his record. He remains committed to clearing his name and is hopeful.
Josh Hedgecorth, the current prosecutor of Washington County, Missouri, where the murder took place, filed a motion on May 16, 2022, asking for Michael's conviction to be overturned. Hedgecorth agrees with Michael's defense team that the scientific evidence used to convict Michael is problematic.
"To me, it all — always comes back to the science," says Hedgecorth.
Hedgecorth has revealed to "48 Hours" that the Washington County Sheriff's Department has reopened the investigation into Rita's murder.
"We wanna do the right thing. If someone else did this, we wanna know that," Hedgecorth tells Moriarty. "Even if it's new evidence that it was Michael."
Despite Michael's optimism that his name will eventually be cleared, his case just got more complicated. Earlier this month, Hedgecorth lost his bid for reelection. And just this week, the Missouri Supreme Court temporarily halted Hedgecorth's effort to overturn Politte's conviction.
Josh SanSoucie says he feels badly for Michael and his family. Thoughts of "what if" have haunted Josh for all of these years. The night of the sleepover, Michael had asked Josh if he would rather sleep on the couch in the living room, or in Michael's bedroom on the floor.
"Is there anything you would have done differently when you look back?" Moriarty asks.
"I wish I … slept on the couch," Josh replies.
If an intruder came in through the front door, they would have had to pass by the couch to enter Rita's room. If that is what happened, Josh believes that person may have seen him and left. "You think if you had slept on that couch, Rita would still be alive?" Moriarty asks. Josh replies that he does.
Michael told "48 Hours" that he wants Josh to know that he feels that Josh didn't do anything wrong. The pair haven't seen each other since they were kids, but they hope to reunite one day. "He didn't do it," Josh told Moriarty. "I don't know who did, but I know it wasn't him."
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