Advances in Fire Science Central to Michael Politte’s Wrongful Conviction Case

Michael Politte is serving a life sentence for the death of his mother, who was found dead in their home in December 1998 after suffering blunt force trauma to the head and being set on fire. Michael was arrested days later at the age of 14.

Michael has consistently maintained his innocence. Today, the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) and the law firm of Langdon & Emison are working together to prove it.

Politte’s case gained national recognition when it was selected as one of three wrongful conviction cases featured in the MTV hit show “Unlocking the Truth.” The docu-series was co-hosted by Eva Nagao and Missouri exoneree Ryan Ferguson, who served eight years in the same prison where Politte is today. The show also featured MIP executive director, Tricia Bushnell.

The MTV series made public many question marks surrounding the fire investigation and analysis used to convict Politte. Langdon & Emison and the Midwest Innocence Project have brought in the two of the nation’s top fire science experts to review Politte’s case.

Langdon & Emison is a personal injury law firm nationally recognized for cases involving fuel-fed fires and propane explosions and routinely works with top experts across the country in personal injury litigation. The firm successfully litigated the landmark case of Baker v. General Motors, a post-collision fuel-fed fire case that resulted in a successful, unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Langdon & Emison attorney Mark Emison is working closely with Bushnell to litigate Politte’s case. Emison was honored Friday as an “Up and Coming Lawyer” for the state of Missouri, with special distinction earned for both his personal injury practice and his pro bono work on the Politte case.

“MIP has hundreds of cases under review, but we felt that our firm was a good fit to work on Michael Politte’s case because we believe in his innocence and can bring our experience and expertise in fire-related cases,” said Emison.

The fire investigation and evidence presented against Politte at trial are central issues in his innocence case; for example, at Politte’s trial, the prosecution presented that Politte had gasoline on his shoes. Michael Politte’s legal team strongly contests that fire evidence.

“A proper, scientific analysis of the chemical test results done at the time prove there was no gasoline on Michael’s shoes,” said Emison. “The tests only found solvents used in the shoe manufacturing process.”

Recently, developments in fire science led to the prosecution agreeing to a new trial for Adam Gray, who was convicted of an arson double-murder that happened in 1996 in Chicago. Adam Gray, like Politte, was just 14 years old at the time of the alleged crime.

Emison, while in law school at the University of Chicago, was a member of the Exoneration Project Clinic’s legal team investigating Gray’s case. According to Emison, prosecutors focused on fire investigators’ conclusions that deep burn patterns at the scene were evidence that the fire was set with an accelerant and therefore an arson.

Gray’s case parallels Politte’s case. Police believed a milk jug found in the alley behind the home contained an accelerant, and a gas station clerk said Gray bought gas shortly before the fire.  However, John Lentini, also serving as an expert in the Politte case, determined that the substance in the milk jug was not gasoline but was petroleum distillate – a substance commonly found in treated wood products and different than the substance in the wood at the scene.

Politte’s legal team believes that, like Gray’s case, a careful analysis of the fire evidence used against Politte will prove his innocence. The Midwest Innocence Project and Langdon & Emison intend to file a Missouri Rule 91 Habeas petition as soon as the investigation is complete. They believe they have a strong case to overturn Politte’s conviction.

“Michael Politte’s wrongful conviction is a disturbing example of the state taking a young man’s life away because of tunnel vision and unreliable evidence,” said Emison.

About Langdon & Emison

Langdon & Emison is recognized as one of the nation’s leading law firm, having taken on some of the world’s largest corporations in personal injury litigation. With office in Lexington and Kansas City (Mo.), St. Louis and Chicago, the firm represents injured people and their families in courtrooms from coast to coast. During 30 years of practice, the firm has earned a national reputation as a leader in auto defect cases, trucking cases and a full array of personal injury litigation.

About the Midwest Innocence Project

The Midwest Innocence Project is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. The MIP was founded at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law in 2000 as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporation and operates today as an independent organization in partnership with the University of Missouri (Kansas City) and (Columbia) Schools of Law, the University of Kansas and local legal communities.