Debra Jean Milke (born March 10, 1964 in Berlin, Germany) is a former Arizona death row inmate who was convicted of the murder of her son Christopher Conan Milke in 1990. On March 14, 2013, Milke's conviction was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
She was the first female to be sentenced to death in Arizona since 1932. Milke was being held at Arizona State Prison Complex – Perryville in Goodyear, Arizona, until she was released on bond on September 6, 2013 pending a new trial for the murder of Christopher Milke. On December 14, 2014 all charges against her were dropped.
Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate presumably suspected Milke's involvement prior to the interview with her. Roger Scott, one of the murderers and a friend of the other killer, Milke's roommate Jim Styers, confessed to taking Christopher Milke out to the desert where Styers shot him. Styers allegedly had Debra Milke's permission to take Christopher to see Santa Claus at a shopping mall. Scott led police to the body and, according to Det. Saldate, implicated Styers and Milke. He did not testify at Milke's trial and was convicted separately and sentenced to death. Styers was also convicted and sentenced to death.
Debra Milke (Sadeik) was born in Berlin, Germany, to a military family. In 1965 the Sadeik family moved to the U.S., where Milke attended high school and college. She married Mark Milke in 1984 and gave birth to one son, Christopher Conan Milke, in 1985. Debra and Mark divorced in 1988.
Murder investigation and conviction
In August 1989, Debra Milke and her son Christopher Milke moved into an apartment with Jim Styers, a man she knew through her sister. On December 2, 1989, Styers took 4-year-old Christopher to the Metrocenter mall in Phoenix, Arizona. That afternoon he called Milke, who was doing laundry at the apartment, and told her that the boy had disappeared from the mall. Styers alerted mall security, while Milke dialed 9-1-1. A missing person investigation was launched. The next day Phoenix police arrested Roger Scott, a long-time friend of Styers. After more than fourteen hours of interrogation, Scott admitted that he knew where Christopher was and that the boy was dead. He directed the police to a desert area north of Phoenix, where Christopher's body was discovered. Christopher had been shot three times in the head. According to the lead case detective Armando Saldate, Jr., Scott claimed that Styers had committed the murder and that Styers had told him Milke had "wanted it done." However, Scott would not testify against Milke at her trial.
Styers, who had helped in the initial search for Christopher, was arrested and interviewed by police after being implicated by Scott. Milke voluntarily went to the Pinal County sheriff's office where she was interrogated by Saldate. The interrogation was not recorded or witnessed by anyone other than Detective Saldate. Three days later, in a written report of the interrogation, Saldate indicated Milke had confessed to arranging the murder of her son Christopher.
Scott was offered a plea-bargain, 21 years in prison for second degree murder, in return for testifying against Milke and Styers. He wanted to take the deal but his lawyer rejected it.
Milke was charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder, kidnapping, child abuse, and first-degree murder. At trial, prosecutors relied on the alleged confession and pointed to a possible motive: Milke had taken out a $5,000 life insurance policy on her son. Milke, who worked at an insurance agency, had obtained the policy as part of her employee benefits package. She had discussed the policy with Styers.
In October 1990, she was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. Styers and Scott were charged and tried separately. Both were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
In December 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed an amicus brief in support of Milke, who by then had been on death row for 18 years. The brief raised questions "regarding the admissibility of uncorroborated and unrecorded confessions" by Milke. In September 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was "no evidence" that Milke had "voluntarily" waived her right to remain silent and ordered federal court judge Robert Broomfield to decide if the case merited a new trial. At the subsequent evidentiary hearing, Broomfield disagreed with the appeals court's opinion and found that Milke had validly waived her Miranda rights.
On March 14, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit threw out Milke's conviction, ruling that Milke did not receive a fair trial. It held that Milke's rights had been violated by the failure to turn over Saldate's personnel file to the defense. That file included multiple instances of misconduct, including eight cases where confessions, indictments or convictions were thrown out because Saldate either lied under oath or violated the suspects' rights during interrogations. The court ruled that because "the prosecution did not disclose [the arresting detective] Saldate’s history of misconduct," Arizona had violated its obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. In their opinion the Circuit Court said,
Milke’s alleged confession, as reported by [Pinal County Sheriff's Detective] Saldate, was the only direct evidence linking Milke to the crime. But the confession was only as good as Saldate’s word, as he’s the only one who claims to have heard Milke confess and there’s no recording, written statement or any other evidence that Milke confessed. Saldate’s credibility was crucial to the state’s case against Milke. It’s hard to imagine anything more relevant to the jury’s—or the judge’s—determination whether to believe Saldate than evidence that Saldate lied under oath and trampled the constitutional rights of suspects in discharging his official duties. If even a single juror had found Saldate untrustworthy based on the documentation that he habitually lied under oath or that he took advantage of women he had in his power, there would have been at least a hung jury. Likewise, if this evidence had been disclosed, it may well have led the judge to order a new trial, enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, at least, impose a sentence less than death. The prosecution did its best to impugn Milke’s credibility. It wasn’t entitled, at the same time, to hide the evidence that undermined Saldate’s credibility. (p. 42)
Upcoming retrial and release from jail
On July 8, 2013, Arizona Attorney General’s Office announced its intention to retry Milke and seek the death penalty for the murder of her son. Milke's lawyer has said that ex-police officer, Armando Saldate, is expected to testify in the new trial. Milke was released on September 6, 2013, with a $250,000 bond set by Judge Rosa Mroz of Maricopa County Superior Court, while she waits for her new trial. Milke left the jail without talking to reporters, and is living in a house in Phoenix bought by her supporters.
Dismissal of charges
On December 11, 2014, an Arizona state appeals court ordered the dismissal of murder charges against Milke, ruling that a retrial would result in unconstitutional double jeopardy. On March 17, 2015 the Arizona Supreme Court declined to review the appeal court decision, and on March 23, 2015, Judge Rosa Mroz dismissed the case.
- Arizona woman's murder conviction, death sentence overturned. CNN, 2013-03-14.
- Debra Milke v. Charles Ryan, decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 14 March 2013
- Rubin, Paul (10 April 1991). "Death-row Debbie: No one wanted to believe she could kill her child". Phoenix New Times. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
- Debra Milke – Inmate Details – Arizona Department of Corrections
- "Debra Milke, Arizonan who had murder conviction tossed, is freed – CNN.com". CNN. 7 September 2013.
- "U.S. Appeals Court Berates Lawyer-Turned-Judge’s Work in the "Going to See Santa" Murder Case". Phoenix NewTimes. 11 June 2009.
- Louis J. Palmer, Jr. (2008). Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment in the United States, 2d ed. McFarland. p. 109.
- American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona amicus brief
- "Will Convicted Child-Killer Debra Milke Win New Trial? We're Betting She Will". Valley Fever blog, Phoenix New Times, 12 January 2010. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Rubin, Paul (2 February 2010). "Local Federal Judge Disagrees With Higher Court; Says No To Child-Killer Debra Milke's Claim Of Miranda Rights Violation". Phoenix New Times. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
- Arizona County Attorney's Office announces the decision to retry Debra Milke, Michael Kiefer, The Republic | azcentral.com
- "Debra Milke Released: Judge Allows Arizona Woman Bail After Second Accusation In Son's Death". PAUL DAVENPORT and BOB CHRISTIE, Huffington Post. 5 September 2013. Retrieved 7 September 2013.
- "Woman on death row could be freed to await retrial". DB News Journal. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
- Kiefer,Michael. "Detective in Milke case can plead 5th, judge rules". azcentral.com.
- Associated Press. "Case Tossed Against Woman Held 22 Years in Son's Death". nbcnews.com.
- Michael, Kiefer. "Arizona Supreme Court declines review of appeal that freed Debra Milke".
- "Debra Milke, Who Spent 22 Years On Death Row, Has Murder Case Thrown Out".