Debra Jean Milke was found guilty of murder in the 1989 killing of her four-year-old son. Prosecutors in the murder case, said Milke sent her son to his death by telling him he was going to see Santa Claus, when instead, he was taken into the desert and shot three times in the back of the head so the defendants could collect on his life insurance policy.
Milke, who was sentenced to death in 1991, has been sitting on death row for more than twenty-two years. It now appears the convicted mother may be set free.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month the prosecution in Milke’s trial failed to disclose the detective who testified that Milke confessed to plotting her son’s murder had a history of misconduct.
The court stated in the ruling that “some of the misconduct wasn’t disclosed until the case came to federal court, and even today, some evidence relevant to (the detective’s) credibility hasn’t been produced.”
The court’s recent ruling reversed a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling and also ordered the lower court to require Arizona authorities to turn over all relevant personnel records for the detective. Prosecutors will have, once the material is produced and defense lawyers have had time to review it, thirty days to retry Milke. If they do not retry her within that time frame, she will be released from prison.
Debra Milke’s conviction was thrown out because of substantial questions about her interrogation by Phoenix police officers. Milke was placed on death row primarily by the testimony of Detective Armando Saldate who informed jurors that Milke confessed to him that she ordered her son’s murder. Milke denied that she confessed to her son’s killing, arguing that Saldate twisted her words. It was his word against hers because he did not tape the interview and he did not have a witness to her confession either.
The prosecution and law enforcement officials never disclosed to Milke’s attorney or the jury that Saldate had a history of lying under oath and trampling people’s Miranda rights. A few examples of Saldate’s misconduct are the following:
- Four court cases in which confessions were suppressed or convictions tossed because Saldate violated suspect’s Miranda and other rights during interrogations;
- One case in which he obtained a statement out of an incoherent suspect hospitalized with a skull fracture; and
- Another case in which he interrogated a suspect in intensive care, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, and actually came up with something to use against him at trial.
The Appeals Panel criticized both the Maricopa County Attorney’s office and the Phoenix Police Department for failing to disclose Saldate’s past misconduct by writing “no civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone’s life or liberty.”