By Dawn Cranfield
Arizona Woman’s Death Row Conviction Overturned After 22 Years
Debra Milke would have been the first woman to be executed in Arizona since the 1930s; instead, her conviction has been overturned due to a technicality in her case. Thursday a federal appeals court determined her case had been contaminated by a detective who had a repeated history of violating suspects’ Miranda rights and for lying under oath.
Milke was sentenced to death for the shooting death of her 4-year-old son, Christopher Conan Milke on December 2, 1989. There were aggravating circumstances of especially heinous, cruel, and depraved acts based on the victim’s age and the “gruesome nature of the crime”.
The Milke case drew national headlines due to the shocking details of the crime; according to prosecutors, Christopher was dressed in his favorite outfit under the pretense he was going to the mall to see Santa for the Christmas holiday. However, he was taken by his mother’s roommate and another friend out to the desert, shot three times in the back of the head, and left in the fetal position.
Jim Styers, Milke’s roommate, and Roger Scott, Styers’ friend, returned to the mall and parted ways with Styers eventually calling Milke and reporting the child missing.
Throughout the investigation, Scott finally confessed to the crime implicating Styers and Milke and led police to Christopher’s body.
Prosecutors claim the motive for the crime was Milke’s $50,000 life insurance policy (although some resources say $5,000) and her
determination to free herself of her child so she could move forward with her career. Additionally, they assert she did not want him to grow up to be a drug addict and an alcoholic like his father.
Lead detective, Armando Saldate, interviewed Milke without benefit of a tape recorder, and claims she confessed everything to him. However, he neglected to get a signed Miranda form waiving Milke’s rights, or a signed confession.
“Debra doesn’t know what really transpired on that fateful day of December 2nd, 1989 or why. She had no idea that Jim or anyone else had been plotting to get rid of Christopher for whatever reason. Based on the outcome of her trial, it was still unclear who did the actual killing.” (murderpedia.org)
The trial came down to a “he said she said” and, according to Chief Justice Alex Kozinski, it “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.” However, they were apparently unaware of the previous record of dishonesty and misconduct by the lead detective, Saldate.
While this decision does not necessarily mean Milke will walk out of prison tomorrow, there is a chance. The prosecution will have to make a decision whether or not they will retry her or release her.
Scott and Styers are both currently on death row in Florence, Arizona.