When Josh Sansouci went to sleep over at a friend’s house in 1998 at age 15, he had no idea he’d become embroiled in a murder investigation. More than 20 years later, Josh, now 39, is giving his first TV interview to “48 Hours” about the night in Hopewell, Missouri that changed his life forever and that of his friend put in jail.
“48 Hours” correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on the case in “The Case Against Michael Politte,” airing Saturday, November 26 at 10/9c on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.
The story begins on December 4, 1998, when Josh Sansousi and his classmate, then 14-year-old Michael Politte, met at a general store in the small town of Hopewell, Missouri, where they lived. Michael invites Josh over for a sleepover and the pair go to Michael’s house to play chess and video games. When they got bored around midnight, he says they went to the train tracks near Michael’s house and started a fire, something Michael says the children in his rural neighborhood often did for fun. It didn’t take long for the boys to say that they had returned to Michael’s house. Soon after, Michael’s mother, 40-year-old Rita Politte, returned home from work at a local bar and everyone went to bed. Michael and Josh say that just before 6:30 a.m., they awoke to a smoke-filled house. The pair say they crawled toward the front door while Michael screamed for his mother. His response did not come.
“Michael, what are you feeling at the moment?” asked Moriarty.
“Don’t be afraid,” replied Michael.
When Michael approached his mother’s room, he says he found a terrifying sight: “I saw her lying down. … I saw blood on her legs, and she was on fire above the waist. .. . I didn’t know what to do.” ,
Rita Politte had been brutally murdered – beaten and set on fire – while two teenagers said they were sleeping in a few rooms. Both Josh and Michael were repeatedly questioned by authorities in the hours and days following the murder. They both denied any involvement, but two days after the crime, Michael was arrested and charged with his mother’s murder. Investigators said that in the wake of the crime, Michael Politte showed a lack of emotion. He also said that a quick sniffer dog alerted 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 unacceptable in court.
Furthermore, prior to Michael Politte’s arrest, Josh Sansouci had given police a videotaped interview that appeared to pierce Michael’s account of the evening. Josh slept on the floor next to where Michael was sleeping on his bed. In that videotaped interview, Josh indicated that he was woken by a noise in the middle of the night, and that Michael was not in the room.
In his first televised interview since then, Josh Sansouci told “48 Hours,” “I don’t remember ever saying that.” “And I guess if I said so, it was probably a weak point or something.”
Josh now says that although he woke up a few times during the night, he never noticed Michael missing from the room. He told “48 Hours” that the police questioning was so harsh that he recalls telling his mother at the time, “They keep saying I’m lying. I don’t even know if I’m telling the truth.” Or not.”
In a deposition before Michael goes on trial, Josh clarifies his statement. Josh said that he never woke up from where he was sleeping on the floor, and that, “It’s not that I didn’t see him in his bed. It’s that I couldn’t see him in his bed.”
In January 2002, three years after the crime, the trial of Michael Politte began. The prosecution presented evidence that an accelerant was used to set Rita Politte on fire and the jury was told how an accelerant was found on Michael’s shoes. The jury also heard that Michael had set fire to the train tracks prior to the murder.
But perhaps the most damning evidence against Michael at trial was the prosecution’s claim that Michael confessed to the crime during a suicide attempt while in prison. Three witnesses who worked at the juvenile detention center wrote in reports that Michael said, “I didn’t care since … I killed my mom.” But Michael said he said, “I haven’t cared since they killed my mom,” pointing to the actual killer(s). However, the jury did not hear from Michael, as he did not take the stand when it was the defense’s turn to present their case. , the defense argued that there was no direct evidence linking Michael to the crime: no murder weapon had been found and, despite the violence of the attack, Michael had suffered no injuries and there was no blood on his clothing.
Josh Sansouci did not testify, and the jury never heard or saw his videotaped interview with the police.
After a three-day trial, the case went to the jury. Deliberations lasted more than four hours, and the jury then found Michael Politte guilty of second-degree murder. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Although the lawsuit was over, Michael Politte’s fight to clear his name was not. 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 joined.
Michael Politte’s new team of defense attorneys split the case against him.
“Mike was convicted because he was a child, pure and simple,” Megan Crane told “48 Hours.” “He said … he wasn’t emotional enough. … trauma doesn’t look like what people think it should look like.”
Michael’s new lawyers 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. went. They say that there is no evidence that accelerant was used to commit the crime.
The lawyers also say that there is no evidence of the presence of xylant on Michael’s shoes. Instead, attorney Mark Emison says a chemical used in the shoe manufacturing process was incorrectly identified as gasoline, and even the Missouri State Crime Laboratory agrees. In a 2020 paper, the crime lab states, “… it is now known that the solvents used in footwear adhesives have strong affinities to gasoline. … But in the late 1990s, this knowledge was not widely known ”
Michael Polite claims he knows who is really responsible for his mother’s murder. His attorneys believe police did not properly investigate the crime, and they have filed court documents naming alternate suspects.
For years, Michael’s team of attorneys fought unsuccessfully to overturn his conviction, but then in 2021 an unexpected development occurred. A bill was passed in Missouri to give second chances to juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes. As a result, Michael is granted parole. In April 2022, he broke out of Missouri State Prison. Jailed at the age of only 14, he was now 38. But Michael tells Moriarty on this week’s “48 Hours” that his freedom isn’t enough because he still has a felony conviction for his mother’s murder on his record. He is committed and hopeful of clearing his name.
Josh Hedgecorth, the current prosecutor for Washington County, Missouri, where the murder occurred, filed a motion on May 16, 2022, seeking to overturn Michael’s conviction. Hedgecorth agrees with Michael’s defense team that the scientific evidence used to convict Michael is problematic.
“For me, it all — always comes back to the science,” says Hedgecorth.
Hedgecorth reveals in “48 Hours” that the Washington County Sheriff’s Department has reopened the investigation into Rita’s murder.
“We want to do the right thing. If anyone else has done it, we want to know,” Hedgecorth tells Moriarty. “Even if there is new evidence that it was Michael.”
Despite Michael’s optimism that his name will eventually be cleared, his case becomes more complicated. Earlier this month, Hedgecorth lost his bid for re-election. And this week, the Missouri Supreme Court temporarily blocked Hedgecorth’s effort to overturn Polit’s conviction.
Josh Sanusi says he feels bad for Michael and his family. For all these years the thought of “what if” has haunted Josh. On the night of the sleepover, Michael had asked Josh whether he would sleep on the couch in the living room or on the floor in Michael’s bedroom.
“Is there anything you would have liked to have done looking back?” Moriarty asks.
“I wish I could… sleep on the couch,” Josh replies.
If an intruder came in through the front door, they would have to pass through the couch to enter Rita’s room. If this is what happened, Josh believes the person must have seen him and gone. “You think if you had slept on that couch, Rita would still be alive?” Moriarty asks. Josh replies that he does.
Michael tells “48 Hours” that he wants Josh to know that he thinks Josh did nothing wrong. The pair haven’t seen each other since childhood, but they hope to meet again one day. “He didn’t do it,” Josh told Moriarty. “I don’t know who did it, but I know it wasn’t him.”