A U.S. District Court Judge has dealt Debra Milke (pictured in a 1991 photo) a big legal setback, ruling that the death-row inmate did validly waive her Miranda rights against self-incrimination before she allegedly confessed to having her son murdered in 1989.
Judge Robert C. Broomfield's 21-page ruling comes two weeks after hearing from both Milke and former Phoenix homicide Detective Armando Saldate during an evidentiary hearing in his courtroom.
The hearing had been ordered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after it ruled that it could find no evidence that Milke had waived her rights.
Broomfield's decision now returns to the appellate court for evaluation. The panel still may reverse him and rule that Detective Saldate illegally elicited Milke's incriminating statements, and order a new trial.
Then again, they may not.
But the judge's ruling left little to the imagination about his position.
A Maricopa County jury convicted Milke of first-degree murder and conspiring with two Phoenix men to commit first-degree murder by arranging the homicide of her four-year-old son Christopher.
Milke was one the area's more reviled murder defendants of that time, in part because police said that the young divorce'e allegedly lured her son to his death by telling him he was going to see Santa Claus.
Judge Broomfield pointed out that the recent evidentiary hearing testimony of both Milke and Saldate "mirrors" what they said at trial two decades ago.
Milke testified that Saldate badgered her throughout the 30-minute interrogation, and ignored her requests to speak to an attorney. Saldate said that Milke told him she understood her rights but denied his request to tape-record the interview.
Judge Broomfield ruled in favor of the State of Arizona by a preponderance of the evidence (that can be 51 percent) that "[Milke] waived her Miranda rights."
The judge's opinion gives new fodder to the mantra of many: Never, ever talk to the police when you're a suspect, even if you're innocent as a lamb.
"There was no evidence that [Milke] was incapable of comprehending her rights," Broomfield wrote, "and only her self-serving testimony suggested that she did not understand them when they were recited by Saldate."
The judge noted that Milke's recent testimony "appeared rehearsed and formulated to support her legal arguments."
As for Saldate, who these days is an elected Phoenix constable, he said he "did not report that [Milke] gave a straightforward confession of guilt as to her role in her son's murder, as he could have done if he were fabricating his account of the interrogation."
James Styers (Milke's roommate at the time of Christopher's murder in the desert northwest of Phoenix) also is on death row, as Styers cohort Roger Wayne Scott.
Christoper Milke died instantly after one of the men--conventional wisdom says it was Styers--shot him three times from close range in the back of his head.
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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."