Mother who spent 22 YEARS on death row for brutally killing son, four, to go free in days after judge finds she was set up by a crooked cop
- 'Death Row Debbie's' conviction due in part because of detective lying under oath
- Judge decided to believe police officer over mom of four-year-old son
- Milke would have been the first woman executed in Arizona since the 1930s
- Prosecutors failed to disclose lead detective, who claimed he obtained a confession, had past misconduct issues
Debra Jean Milke's guilty verdict was overturned earlier this year - but now prosecutors have failed to file an expected appeal meaning she will be released in just weeks.
Known as Death Row Debbie, 48-year-old Debra Jean Milke's was found guilty in 1989 for the gruesome slaying of her toddler son Christopher who was shot three times in the back of the head and dumped in the desert.
Ready for release: Debra Jean Milke, left, had her murder conviction overturned after spending more than 20 years on death row for the killing of her 4-year-old son, Christopher, right, in December 1989
Spared: Milke would have been the first woman executed in Arizona since the 1930s had her appeals run out
But a US Circuit Court of Appeals judge has agreed with her lawyers that ruled that the conviction had been due in part because of a crooked cop who had a history of lying under oath.
Milke's conviction was overturned on March 14th allowing prosecutors to launch an appeal to hold a retrial within 30 days. No application for a retrial has been filed which means she could soon be a free woman.
The move marked a surprising turn in a case that made national headlines due to the brazen and disturbing nature of the crime.
Prosecutors said in December 1989, Milke dressed up her son Christopher in his favorite outfit and told him he was going to see Santa Claus at a Phoenix mall during the holidays.
Instead, he was taken into a ravine in the desert by her boyfriend, Roger Scott and another man called Styers and shot three times in the back of the head as part of what prosecutors said was a plot by Milke and the two other defendants to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy.
Milke, who was not present at the crime, was convicted in 1990 of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping on the strength of testimony by Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate, who said she confessed to the crimes.
The detective testified that Milke told him she had contemplated having an abortion while pregnant with Christopher and had complained to Styers about her son.
Styers was hardly an ideal babysitter. He had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming in large part from an incident during the war when he shot and killed a young Vietnamese boy who had climbed onto a truck transporting Styers and other Marines in Vietnam, according to court documents.
In his 1985 personal journal, now part of court records, Styers wrote: 'Losing sleep because of dreams in Viet-Nam [sic] Seeing kids including my own and wondering if I'm going to do something to hurt them, and remembering the ones I had to kill.'
With Christopher in the car, Styers picked up his good friend Roger Scott.
The two men did not take Christopher to see Santa. Instead, they drove Christopher into the desert, where Styers emptied three bullets into the boy's head.
Milke was convicted in 1990 of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping in a plot to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy
The Phoenix police department's star interrogator, Det. Armando Saldate Jr., was called in on his day off to separately question the three.
In a matter of hours, Saldate had secured a speedy resolution to the horrific high-profile holiday crime.The detective said she confessed to conspiring to the murder, although she protested her innocence and denied the claim.
The three suspects were tried separately, convicted, and sentenced to die.
Milke would have been the first woman executed in Arizona since the 1930s had her appeals run out.
The Arizona Supreme Court had gone so far to issue a death warrant for Milke in 1997, but the execution was delayed because she had yet to exhaust federal appeals.
That record included multiple court rulings in four other cases that Saldate either lied under oath or violated suspects’ Miranda rights during interrogations.
Prosecutors are required to provide a defendant’s lawyers with material that might support a not-guilty verdict, including material that could undermine the credibility of a prosecution witness.
There was no other witness or recording of the purported confession by Milke, who has proclaimed her innocence.
In court proceedings and press interviews, Milke professed her innocence, claiming Saldate had a history of lying under oath and had fabricated her confession.
The trial amounted to ‘a swearing contest’ in which the judge and jury ultimately believed the detective over Milke, but they didn’t know of his record of dishonesty and misconduct.
The ruling reversed a US District Court judge’s ruling and ordered the lower court to require Arizona authorities to turn over all relevant personnel records for the detective.
Key witness: Milke, left, was found guilty on the strength of testimony by a Phoenix police detective, who said the mother told him she had contemplated having an abortion while pregnant with Christopher, right
In 2009, defense attorney Michael Kimerer said his client maintains her innocence and was a loving mother who still grieves her son’s death.
‘Our main concern is the fact that I have a client that never confessed and a police detective who said she gave a confession,’ Kimerer said then. ‘There was no tape recorder, no witnesses, nothing. Just his word.’
In March the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Milke's conviction in what Chief Judge Alex Kozinski dubbed a 'troubling case.'
He called into question what he said was Saldate's possible 'misogynistic' attitude towards vulnerable civilian women over whom he had power and noted Saldate had a documented history of lying under oath.
Kozinski's blistering 60-page opinion and other court records shed light on the alleged police corruption, prosecutorial overreach and judicial carelessness that fused into a miscarriage of justice that might have sentenced an innocent woman to death.
Milke testified she didn't know Christopher had died until Saldate informed her of his death in an interrogation room.
She said she was 'in shock' and 'reeling' but the detective moved close to her and put his hands on her knees.
She told the jury she hadn't understood her Miranda rights and had asked for a lawyer, but instead Saldate continued interrogating her and twisted her words into a fake confession.
'She was one of the worst witnesses I've ever seen,; recalls Phoenix journalist Paul Rubin, who covered the trial.
Although he destroyed his notes of the interview and failed to tape record it, Saldate testified that Milke confessed she worried that Christopher would grow up to be just like his father, a substance-abusing ex-con.
That's why she 'wanted God to take care of Christopher,' Saldate testified.
After Milke was convicted, her defense investigators spent 7,000 hours poring over court records.
They discovered eight separate cases in which judges determined that Saldate either had lied under oath or violated the constitutional rights of people he interrogated.
But Hendrix, the judge, still decided that Saldate was more credible than Milke
Court records indicate that neither Styers nor Scott would testify against Milke.
In overturning Milke’s conviction, the appellate court didn’t find her innocent. 'Milke may well be guilty, even if Saldate made up her confession out of whole cloth,' Kozinski wrote.
'After all, it's hard to understand what reason Styers and Scott would have had for killing a four-year-old boy.
Then again, what reason would they have to protect her if they knew she was guilty?'
Milke, now 49, was jailed the day after Christopher's death. She is one of three women on death row in Arizona and has been behind bars for 25 years and on death row for 22 years.
The two men convicted in the Milke’s case, Roger Scott and former Milke roommate James Styers, are also both on death row.
Scott confessed during a police interrogation and led detectives to the boy’s body, but neither Scott or Styers would testify against Milke.