Back in 1990, Debra Milke of Phoenix was sentenced to death for supposedly orchestrating the December 1989 murder of her four-year-old son, Christopher. She spent 22 years on death row--but is about to be a free woman. Due to ghastly revelations about the detective who handled her case, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals headed by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski threw out Milke's conviction and ordered her released.
A day after seeing Santa Claus at a mall, young Christopher Milke asked his mother if he could go again. That was the plan, she said, when the boy got into the car with Milke's roommate, James Styers.The full opinion is viewable here. It makes for horrifying reading. Saldate testified that Milke confessed her involvement in the murder, admitting that it had been a "bad idea" for her to get involved. His testimony was the only evidence tying Milke to her son's murder. Neither Styers nor the friend, Roger Scott, directly implicated Milke.
Styers picked up a friend, "but instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove the boy out of town to a secluded ravine, where Styers shot Christoper three times in the head," according to Kozinski's summary of the case. Styers was convicted of first-degree murder in the boy's killing and sentenced to death.
The detective, Armando Saldate, said the friend 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.
Milke not only denied that she ever confessed, but claimed that Saldate refused her requests for a lawyer and embellished her statements. It's hard not to believe Milke, considering that Saldate never recorded the interrogation (despite being told to do so), didn't have anyone on hand to witness the supposed confession, never obtained a signed Miranda waiver, and threw away his notes after the interrogation. Despite all this, Milke was convicted and sentenced to death.
That by itself would be enough to throw out Milke's conviction. But it turns out that the prosecution never turned over evidence of Saldate's long history of misconduct to the defense. That history raises some pretty serious questions about the hiring standards of the Phoenix Police Department.
Back in 1973, while he was still a patrolman, Saldate was suspended for five days after he pulled over a motorist and let her go without checking her license for warrants in return for sexual favors. At least eight cases in which Saldate was involved had confessions, indictments or convictions thrown out because Saldate either lied under oath or violated the suspects' rights during interrogations. Two of the most ghastly cases involve instances where Saldate interrogated badly injured suspects even though they were obviously incoherent. In one case, Saldate pressed on with an interrogation of a suspect with a skull fracture even though he didn't even know his own name. In another, a nurse had to hold off giving a man in the ICU pain medicine until Saldate finished questioning him, even though he was in obvious pain.
The panel ordered Milke freed within 30 days unless prosecutors say they plan to retry her. It also ordered Saldate's personnel files turned over to Milke's lawyers. And Saldate and his bosses may be in for a world of trouble. The panel found Saldate's actions so disturbing that it asked the U.S. Attorney for Arizona and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate whether Saldate's behavior, and that of his superiors, amount to "a pattern of violating the federally protected rights of Arizona residents." Left unasked is the obvious question--how in the world was a bad cop allowed to stay on the force for so long?
Milke no doubt will need counseling for the rest of her life. After all, she's spent almost half of her life on death row for a crime that, in all likelihood, she didn't commit.
2:58 PM PT: Since this made the rec list, I thought I should mention that Arizona AG Tom Horne actually plans to appeal. Talk about tone deaf. Even if Milke is guilty (and it's an awfully big if), the misconduct here is so egregious that one can make a good argument Arizona has lost any moral authority to keep her in custody.
4:36 PM PT: To clarify--based on what we know, without Saldate's confession the prosecution has no case. So even in the extremely remote chance that Milke was involved in her son's murder, a second trial would not be credible. For that reason, Arizona no longer has any moral authority to retry her or keep her in custody.