WOMAN TO BE RELEASED AFTER 22 YEARS ON DEATH ROW
Judge cites misconduct by police detective, prosecutors
March 15, 2013
(NATIONAL) – She spent 22 years of her life on death row for a crime she says she never committed or admitted to. She was the first woman sentenced to death in Arizona since 1932. And now she is close to freedom.
Debra Milke, 49, spent 22 years on death row as convicted murderer. Judge says now she never got a fair trial. CLICK TO ENLARGE
A jury convicted Arizona resident Debra Milke, now 49, of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping on October 12, 1990.
That was less than a year after her 4-year-old son Christopher was found dead. She was sentenced to death a few months later.
And now those convictions and the sentence have been tossed out. They were tossed out Thursday by a federal appeals court judge.
In explaining why he overturned the convictions Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the Arizona woman never got a fair trial to begin with and he hammered the prosecutors for remaining "unconstitutionally silent" on what he called a history of misconduct of its key witness, a Phoenix police detective.
"The Constitution requires a fair trial," Kozinski wrote. "This never happened in Milke's case."
DETECTIVE WITH LONG HISTORY OF LYING UNDER OATH
There was never any physical evidence tying Milke to her son's murder and there was no recording of the police interrogation by Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate.
In addition no one else was in the room or watching the interrogation from a two-way mirror and Saldate said he threw away his notes shortly after completing his report. There is no record of what happened in that room other than what Saldate claimed was said.
Saldate had claimed Milke admitted during the interrogation into being in on a plot to have her son murdered,
"The judge and jury believed Saldate," said Kozinski. "But they didn't know about Saldate's long history of lying under oath and other misconduct."
Kozinski noted that Saldate had been suspended five days for taking "liberties" with a female motorist and lying about it to his supervisors, that judges had tossed out four confessions or indictments because Saldate had lied under oath and also that judges suppressed or vacated four confessions because Saldate had violated a person's constitutional rights.
Kozinski said the state knew of the evidence in Saldate's personnel file and had an obligation to produce the documents.
So Kozinski ordered the state to turn over Saldate's personnel records to Milke's lawyers and after that has happened a police official has to state under oath that everything has been disclosed and nothing has been "omitted, lost or destroyed."
THE MURDER OF CHRISTOPHER MILKE
Milke's son was allegedly murdered by Milke's roommate at the time, James Styers.
Styers and another man had picked the boy up in a car. The plan had been to take Christopher to a mall to see Santa Claus but instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove the boy out of town to a secluded ravine where Styers shot Christoper Milke three times in the head, according to court documents.
Styers was convicted of first-degree murder in the boy's killing and sentenced to death.
Detective Saldate said the friend of Styers told him that Debra Milke was involved in a plot to kill her son. But neither the friend nor Styers testified to that assertion in court.
Kozinski said the trial eventually boiled down to who the jury believed, the detective with a history of lying – that was withheld from the defense - or the mother.
BACKGROUND ON CASE
In August 1989 Debra Milke, then a single mom after she and her husband divorced, and her son Christopher Milke moved into an apartment with Jim Styers, a man she knew through her sister.
On December 2, 1989, Styers took 4-year-old Christopher to the Metrocenter mall in Phoenix, Arizona ostensibly to see Santa Claus.
That afternoon he called Milke, who was doing laundry at the apartment, and told her that the boy had disappeared from the mall. Styers alerted mall security, while Milke dialed 911. A missing person investigation was launched.
The next day Phoenix police arrested Roger Scott, a long-time friend of Styers. After more than fourteen hours of interrogation, Scott admitted that he knew where Christopher was and that the boy was dead.
He directed the police to a desert area north of Phoenix, where Christopher's body was discovered. Christopher had been shot three times in the head. According to the lead case detective Armando Saldate, Jr., Scott claimed that Styers had committed the murder and that Milke had "wanted it done." However, Scott later refused to testify against Milke.
Styers, who had helped in the initial search for Christopher, was arrested and interviewed by police after being implicated by Scott.
Milke voluntarily went to the Pinal County sheriff's office, where she waited in a jail dispensary. Other Phoenix police detectives were told via radio not to speak to Debra. When Saldate, arrived with a helicopter, he sent her accompanying acquaintance out of the room, and started the interrogation behind the closed door.
He had neither set up a tape recorder, nor was any other witness present.
Three days later he wrote a narrative report that indicated Milke had instigated the murder of her son Christopher. Milke allegedly told Saldate that she wanted her son dead.
The confession was not tape-recorded, signed by her, or witnessed by anyone.
Milke was charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder, kidnapping, child abuse, and first-degree murder. In October 1990, she was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death.
Styers and Scott were charged and tried separately. Both were convicted of first degree murder and were sentenced to death.
In December 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed an amicus brief in support of Milke, who by then had been on death row for 18 years.
The brief raised questions "regarding the admissibility of uncorroborated and unrecorded confessions" by Milke.