Will Convicted Child-Killer Debra Milke Win New Trial? We're Betting She Will
Spent some of the morning in the federal courtroom of Judge Robert Broomfield, who is considering whether to order a new trial for longtime Arizona death-row inmate Debra Milke, convicted two decades ago of orchestrating the execution-style murder of her 4-year-old son Christopher.
If Judge Broomfield rules that Milke's alleged confession to Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate would not be admissible at a retrial, a conviction in little Christopher's 1989 murder -- one of that era's most infamous criminal cases
-- would be highly unlikely.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last September said there is "no evidence" that Milke "voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently" waived her Miranda rights before allegedly confessing to Detective Saldate during a controversial interview that was not recorded.
Both Milke and Saldate testified yesterday.
We were unable to get there. But several people in attendance report that Milke -- now a 45-year-old white-haired woman clad in an orange prison jumpsuit (and in leg irons and handcuffed) -- acquitted herself fairly well, nervously telling the judge that she never had confessed to the detective, and had tried to assert her Miranda rights to an attorney at the outset of her critical 30-minute interview.
Saldate, who retired from the Phoenix PD years ago and currently is an elected constable serving east Phoenix, sparred hard with Milke's lead appellate lawyer, estimable veteran Michael Kimerer.
The ex-detective testified that it was his custom not to tape-record his interviews (that practice is ancient history to current PPD detectives, though, interestingly, many FBI agents still adhere to it), and that Milke never had tried to lawyer up.
The facts of Christopher's murder will be familiar to many, and we reported the sad story extensively back in the day:
On December 3, 1989, Phoenix detectives found Christopher's body in a far-northwest Phoenix desert wash. The cause of death: three hypervelocity bullets to the back of the boy's head from close range. Christopher's chewing gum was clenched between his teeth. He was curled in the fetal position.
Prosecutor Noel Levy argued at the trial that Debbie had considered motherhood an inconvenience that was interfering with her career and her romantic ambitions. She also wanted Christopher dead because he reminded her, in looks and temperament, of her hated ex-husband, Mark Milke.
Debbie used as instruments of her son's death, Levy argued, James Styers and Roger Wayne Scott -- unemployed west-side Phoenix pals. The pair also ended up on death row after separate trials, with the theory being that Styers was the triggerman and Scott the idiot friend who facilitated the evil deed.
Mark Milke, who now calls himself "Arizona," was in the Phoenix courtroom this morning, as was Debra Milke's mother, Renate Janka, and others intimately aware of the controversial case's nuances.
Private investigator Paul Huebl testified for Milke's side that he had briefly interviewed Debra on audiotape at the county jail shortly after her arrest on December 4, 1989. (Huebl did freelance work for Channel 10 in those days).
Huebl told Milke attorney Amy Nguyen that he had asked the young woman if she had confessed to killing Christopher, and she adamantly denied it.
"`I had nothing to do with the death of my son,'" was how Huebl recalled her answer.
During cross-examination by assistant state attorney general Julie Done, Huebl and the rest in attendance viewed a Channel 10 story that aired a day before Milke was sentenced to death. Narrated at the time by Huebl, it graphically described Christopher's murder.
Debra Milke sobbed loudly as Huebl spoke of the three gunshot wounds to the back of the boy's head.
The story ended with Huebl's prescient comment, "Now her hopes are in the appeals process."
Huebl told assistant attorney general Done that "[Detective] Saldate, as I could see it, was the case [against Milke]."
The private investigator said he long has believed that the Milke case deserved further investigation, noting that "if you're gonna kill someone [by executing them], you'd better be sure by God before you do it."
Done repeatedly asked Huebl if he believed in Milke's innocence, to which the PI finally answered, "Yeah, I kind of do."
The appellate court has ordered Judge Broomfield to decide by February 2 whether Debra Milke merits a new trial.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.