Debra Milke Can't Be Retried in Son's Murder, Appeals Court Rules

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has been pursuing the retrial of Debra Milke.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has been pursuing the retrial of Debra Milke.
Matthew Hendley

The Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that Debbie Milke, the mother who spent more than two decades on death row for her son's murder, can't be retried in the case.

Milke's conviction was tossed out by a federal appeals court last year after it held that the state unconstitutionally withheld information about the key witness in the case, former Phoenix cop Armando Saldate, who claimed that Milke had confessed to the murder. In a case that depended on Saldate's testimony to put away Milke, prosecutors remained "unconstitutionally silent" about Saldate's history of misconduct as a cop.

The state appeals court found this violation so extreme that it took the rare step of barring a retrial, which is a rare move.

"No lesser sanction would rehabilitate the damage done to the integrity of the justice system," the judges wrote in their opinion.

See also: -Bill Montgomery Wants to Retry Debra Milke

Debra Milke.
Debra Milke.

Usually, a violation of the "Brady disclosure" rules results in a new trial, but in the Milke case, the judges say this was so crucial to proving Milke's guilt that it falls under the state's double-jeopardy clause, thus preventing another trial.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office led by County Attorney Bill Montgomery had been pursuing a retrial since the federal appeals court overturned the conviction last year.

Here's the kind of information that prosecutors never disclosed in the 1990 trial, as noted in today's opinion from the state appeals court:

  • State v. Yanes, CR130403 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Nov. 14, 1983). Saldate admitted interrogating a suspect who was strapped to a hospital gurney, incoherent after apparently suffering a skull fracture. The trial court subsequently suppressed those statements.
  • State v. Rodriguez, CR161282 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Nov. 20, 1986). The trial court found Saldate told a grand jury that the murder victim had been shot four times, even though it was "undisputed" that the victim was shot only once.
  • State v. Conde, CR88-05881(B), CA 90-475 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Oct. 24, 1989). Saldate interrogated a suspect in intensive care who was intubated and connected to intravenous lines. The trial court subsequently found the statements involuntary.
  • State v. Reynolds, CR88-09605 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Feb. 27, 1989). The trial court found that Saldate's false statements to the grand jury denied the defendant his right to due process and a fair and impartial presentation of the evidence.
  • State v. Rangel, CR89-08086 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Oct. 16, 1989). Saldate and a prosecutor misled a grand jury by selectively recounting the defendant's statements. The trial court held that Saldate's and the prosecutor's statements had materially affected the grand jury's deliberation and remanded the case for a new finding of probable cause.
  • State v. Jones, CR 90-05217 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Nov. 29, 1990). In the course of a murder investigation, Saldate directed an 'officer to place a juvenile by himself in an interrogation room, where the juvenile was handcuffed to a table. The trial court suppressed the subsequent confession because of lack of probable cause and illegal arrest.
  • State v. King, CR90-00050 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Jun. 22, 1990). Saldate kept asking questions long after the defendant indicated he no longer wanted to answer. The trial court ruled that those statements were inadmissible

The following incident in Saldate's personnel file at Phoenix PD wasn't disclosed, either:

In addition to litigation concerning Saldate's alleged misconduct, his disciplinary record included documentation regarding an incident involving a sexual quid pro quo with a female motorist. In a disciplinary write-up dated August 1973, the Phoenix Police Department ("Department") suspended Saldate for making advances and taking liberties with the female driver of a car that he had stopped. When initially questioned about the incident, Saldate denied his involvement until a polygraph test revealed his dishonesty. Both the police chief and the city manager questioned Saldate's character, stating that "because of this incident, your image of honesty, competency, and overall reliability must be questioned." Id. at 1020. The Ninth Circuit found the State knew of this misconduct but, in violation of Brady, failed to disclose it to Milke.

Jurors knew none of this when they convicted Milke in 1990 of first-degree murder, and other charges.

Saldate testified at the trial that Milke had confessed to him, although he didn't record the confession, and Milke's denied the supposed confession.

"We conclude that the State's failure to disclose these matters to Milke amounts to egregious misconduct because the material was 'highly significant to the primary jury issue' with potential to have an 'important effect on the jury's determination,'" the appeals court opinion states.

However, the appeals court "express[es] no opinion regarding her actual guilt or innocence."

Milke's 4-year-old son, Christopher, went missing in December 1989 after her roommate, James Styers, and his friend, Roger Scott, took the boy to see Santa at the Metrocenter mall.

Scott ended up admitting to police that he went with Styers as he instead took the boy to a wash near 99th Avenue and Jomax Road, and Styers fatally shot the boy.

Styers was under the impression that he would receive some of Christopher's $5,000 insurance policy.

Scott led police to the body, and -- at least according to Phoenix PD's Saldate -- Milke confessed to setting up the whole thing.

Milke has been out on bond since September 2013, after her conviction was overturned.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is holding a 4 p.m. press conference to respond.

UPDATE December 12: Montgomery plans to appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.

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