Debbie Milke Was Convicted of Murdering Her Own Child, Now She May Win Her Freedom (or, At Least, a New Trial)

Milke, 45, dubbed "Death Row Debbie," has spent almost half of her life behind bars.
Jon Gipe

Twenty years ago this December, a case involving a missing 4-year-old boy named Christopher Milke captivated and horrified Valley residents.

Christopher's 25-year-old mother, Debbie Milke, first told Phoenix police that the boy had gone "to see Santa" at the Metrocenter mall with a friend and roommate of hers named Jim Styers.

Styers was a 42-year-old unemployed Vietnam veteran.

He told cops he had taken Christopher to the mall, where the boy vanished when Styers went to a restroom.

Styers' account quickly fell apart, especially after he admitted that a pal of his, Roger Scott, had been with him that afternoon at the mall.

Scott cracked after hours of interrogation and implicated Milke and Styers in a vile murder conspiracy. He then led authorities to Christopher's body in a desert wash near 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.

The little boy had been shot at close range three times in the back of the head. His chewing gum was still clenched between his teeth, and he was curled in the fetal position.

Phoenix homicide detective Armando Saldate was dispatched to Florence, where Debbie Milke had gone to stay with her father and stepmother. She was taken to a nearby police station, where Saldate interviewed her.

What happened (or did not happen) in that interrogation room would be critical to Milke's future as the first woman condemned to die in Arizona since 1932.

Saldate would write in a police report and later would testify that Debbie Milke had confessed to him in an unrecorded interview on December 3, 1989.

Saldate claimed Milke told him that she had orchestrated Christopher's murder (using Jim Styers as her "hitman"), essentially because the boy reminded her, in temperament and looks, of her troubled ex-husband, Mark Milke.

Jim Styers never did incriminate Debbie Milke, but he was convicted in a separate trial and ordered to death row. Roger Scott balked at signing a plea bargain in return for his testimony against Milke. Nonetheless, Scott, too, ended up on death row after his own murder trial.

The testimony of both Milke and Detective Saldate were the centerpieces of the woman's highly publicized trial before a Maricopa County Superior Court jury. (Debbie's father, sister, stepsister, and stepmother all testified against her.)

On the witness stand, Saldate danced around specifics of his unrecorded interview with Milke, calmly insisting that she had confessed after voluntarily waiving her Miranda rights against self-incrimination. (The detective also destroyed the notes he had made during the interrogation after typing his police report a few days afterward.)

Milke later told New Times during a series of recorded interviews for a story published on April 10, 1991, called "Death Row Debbie" that she had been appalled by Detective Saldate's damning testimony.

"You should have seen good old Saldate butter up the jury," she said. "It makes me nauseous. He said, 'I'm very religious. I'm an experienced officer. I follow all the guidelines. Us cops don't lie.' What a juicy story. Here's the stupid hero cop to save the day. What a liar! I bet he's happy how things worked out."

But Milke's own testimony — especially her steely, unsympathetic demeanor on the stand — surely ruined any chance she might have had to win an acquittal. She, too, was shipped to death row (in her case, a one-woman unit in the Perryville prison).

Saldate retired from police work in the 1990s and currently is a constable in Phoenix's Encanto district. Milke now is a 45-year-old woman who has spent almost half of her life behind bars.

But a September 29 order by a panel of three federal Ninth Circuit judges strongly suggests that Debbie Milke may win her freedom (or, at the very least, a new trial) because of that controversial two-decade-old interrogation in Pinal County.

In remanding the case to federal judge Robert Broomfield in Phoenix, the appellate judges said there is "no evidence" that Milke "voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently" waived her Miranda rights before allegedly confessing to Detective Saldate.

The panel ordered Judge Broomfield to hold an evidentiary hearing within 60 days, after which Milke's confession could be ruled inadmissible (if the local judge agrees with the appellate panel).

That, say legal experts contacted by New Times, probably would render a murder conviction in a retrial unlikely.

The Ninth Circuit ruling came a little more than a year after attorneys for Milke and the State of Arizona argued the merits of the critical Miranda waiver during a remarkable hearing in Pasadena, California.

Alex Kozinski, the chief judge for the Ninth Circuit, continually chided Milke appellate lawyer Lori Voepel for not getting to the critical point during her presentation.

"You're aiming too far and too high," Kozinski told the attorney. "All you really have to say is the confession came in improperly. And it was highly damaging . . . And if you manage to knock out the confession, then it's a different ballgame."

The judge then asked Voepel whether Debbie Milke specifically had signed a Miranda card waiving her rights against self-incrimination.

Voepel said she had not.

"In 22 years of doing this — or 23 years — I've never seen a case where there hasn't been a signed Miranda warning," the judge said.

The defense attorney conceded that the detective had read or cited the Miranda warnings to Milke, but insisted that the murder suspect never did formally waive her rights.

"When opposing counsel stands up, he's not gonna pull a rabbit out of the hat, is he, and tell me, yes, there was something there?" Kozinski asked Voepel.

No, the attorney replied.

Judge Kozinski then grilled Kent Cattani, a veteran assistant Arizona attorney general who handles death-penalty appeals.

"Do you understand the difference between saying, 'I understand my rights' and 'I give up my rights'?" the judge asked Cattani. "There are lots of things I understand that I don't give up. Where does [Saldate] say that [Milke] said, 'I understand my rights. I give up my rights.' Where is that evidence in the record?"

"I don't know that it is in the record as specific," Cattani started to say, before Kozinski interrupted him.

"Why don't you lose in that case?" the judge asked.

Cattani tried to regroup, noting that trial Judge Cheryl Hendrix implicitly ruled against Milke on the waiver argument nearly two decades ago.

Cattani also pointed out that Milke's defense attorney barely raised the issue at the time, and neither did her then-appellate lawyers on direct appeal.

But Kozinski was undaunted, asking the assistant attorney general whether he recollected "seeing a case where there hasn't been a signed Miranda waiver. I don't know any place in the civilized world in the last 30 years where a state has found a waiver of constitutional rights without a signed waiver."

"I've never seen the issue raised on appeal in my 16 years," was all Cattani could muster.

"Why isn't that the end of the case?" the judge practically bellowed. "Insufficient evidence. There is not evidence at all that she waived. Sure, there's evidence that [Saldate] told her [about the Miranda warning]. But we require more. The Supreme Court requires more."

These days, it should be noted, Phoenix police detectives audio- and videotape almost all their interviews with murder suspects.

In one of her interviews with New Times, Debbie Milke said: "I did not deceive my son by telling him he was going to see Santa Claus. I know there are women who kill, but I'm not one of them."

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