An appeals court in Arizona ruled today that murder charges be dismissed against Debra Jean Milke for the death of her son in 1989. The formerly condemned woman, now 50 years old, has spent over 20 years awaiting her execution on death row. Lori Voepel, attorney for Milke, described her as “ecstatic.”
Although the young mother was found guilty of first-degree murder, a federal court overturned the verdict over a year ago. Milke will not be re-tried for murder because, according to a unanimous, three-person Arizona Court of Appeals decision released on Thursday, to do so would be double jeopardy. Spokesman Doug Nick of the Arizona Department of Corrections revealed that the former convicted murderer was released on Sept. 5 of 2013.
Bill Montgomery, an attorney for Maricopa County, said they plan to appeal the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court due to mistakes that were made when facts of the case were examined by the appeals court. At a news conference, he reminded those present that Christopher also has a right to “justice and due process.”
Milke’s son, Christopher, was found dead in 1989. The 4-year-old’s body, dressed in what was his favorite clothing, was discovered in the desert near Phoenix. Just a few days before Christmas, he was told that Milke’s roommate, Jim Styers, would take him to visit Santa Claus at a Phoenix mall. Prosecutors alleged that Milke hired Styers and Roger Scott to kill her son because she no longer wanted him, but did not want him to live with his father, either. Styers stopped along the way to pick up Scott and the men took Christopher to an unfrequented ravine, where Styers fired three shots into the young boy’s head. Neither Styers nor Scott would testify against Milke.
Both men were convicted and are currently awaiting their executions on death row. Based largely on testimony given by Det. Armando Saldate of the Phoenix police, who said that she had confessed to the murder of her son, Milke was found guilty in 1990 of various state charges which included first-degree murder. The young woman denied having confessed and maintained that she was innocent. No recording existed of the mother confessing, but jurors found the now-retired detective to be credible.
Attorneys filed an appeal in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court found several prior cases in which Saldate had failed to follow rules, including violating the rights of suspects and lying while under oath, and ruled that prosecutors should have shared that information with defense attorneys, causing the verdict to be overturned. Prosecutors had planned to retry the murder case against Milke in 2015, but faced difficulty when Saldate, in fear of being charged with federal misconduct, would not readily agree to testify against her again. In its ruling, the appeals court asked for an investigation by the Justice Department into whether or not Sandate should be tried for civil rights violations.
While prosecutors were planning their retrial, Milke asked the court to completely dismiss the case against her, citing the fact that the only evidence against her was in the form of a confession that she denied making and of which there was no proof. Her request was granted by the appeals court ““because of the state’s severe, egregious prosecutorial misconduct in failing to disclose impeachment evidence.”
Milke’s case garnered international attention in 1990 when she became the first woman to receive capital punishment in Arizona since 1932. Because her mother was German, the country of Germany, which has no death penalty, supported Milke, as did Switzerland, which also does not have capital punishment.
By Jennifer Pfalz