Death Row

Debra Milke's Overturned Conviction for Killing Son in '89 to Be Appealed by AZ Attorney General Tom Horne

Debra Milke, on Death Row since her 1990 conviction for conspiring to have her 4-year-old son killed in 1989, won't be released from prison anytime soon.

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Milke's conviction yesterday, raising the possibility that she could be set free in 30 days. But today, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne announced he definitely will appeal the court's decision, which means Milke isn't going anywhere -- for now.

See also: Debra Milke's Convictions Overturned in Son's Murder, After Two Decades on Death Row

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

Horne's office released an e-mail today stating:

We will be appealing this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Court takes the appeal, I will argue it personally as I have done in two previous cases over the past five months. In my last case, the Supreme Court accepted my argument and overruled the Ninth Circuit's decision unanimously.

In this case, Ms. Milke was found to have arranged the killing of her own son, a four-year-old toddler, because he was too much of a burden and interfering with her life. After dressing him up and telling him he was going to the mall to see Santa Claus, Milke was convicted of sending her young son off to be shot, execution style, in a desert wash.

This is a horrible crime. The Ninth Circuit's decision needs to be reversed, and justice for Christopher needs to be served.

The Ninth's decision centers on the credibility of a key witness in the case, former Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate. The cop had claimed that Milke waived her Miranda rights and confessed to the conspiracy to have Christopher killed by two male acquaintances, Jim Styers and Roger Scott (who were also sentenced to death row). Allegations later surfaced that the cop had lied to grand juries previously and somehow had managed to extract confessions from unconscious suspects.

Milke was never accused of actually carrying out the crime. Scott, who cracked after many hours of interrogation, told police that he and Styers took the kid to Peter Piper Pizza, then told him they were going to look for snake holes in the desert. In a desert wash at 99th Avenue and Happy Valley Road, Styers fired three bullets into the back of Christopher's head.

Milke was implicated in the plot by Scott, as a 1991 New Times article describes:

Debbie had promised Styers most of the $5,000 from a life insurance policy on Christopher, Scott confessed. Scott was to be paid $250 for driving the getaway car. The men left Christopher's body where it would eventually be discovered.

The 1991 article describes how Milke's seemingly cold-hearted personality on the witness stand helped convince the jury she was guilty. Detective Saldate didn't record Milke's alleged confession, but he testified that she told him, "I just made a bad judgment call. I'm just an emotionally troubled 25-year-old girl who needs help in dealing with her problems."

Without Milke's involvement as a potential motive for Styers and Scott, the men's murder of a 4-year-old doesn't make much sense.

But if the case goes to another jury and Detective Saldate's testimony can't be used, an implied motive and the testimony of Scott may or may not be enough to re-convict Milke.

The first paragraph of Horne's statement suggests the state Attorney General knows how to steer the U.S. Supreme Court his way. If he's right about that, Milke won't get her second chance at freedom.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.