In 1990, Debra Milke was sentenced to death for allegedly orchestrating the murder of her four-year-old son, Christopher Milke, in December 1989. She allegedly conspired with James Styers and Roger Scott to kill Christopher while he was on his way to the mall to see Santa Claus. The only direct evidence against Milke was the testimony of Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate, who testified that Milke had confessed her involvement in the killing. Saldate never recorded the confession despite being ordered to do so, didn't have anyone witness the confession, never got Milke to sign a waiver of her rights and destroyed his notes. Despite this, and the lack of any corroboration (Styers and Scott have both denied Milke was involved), Milke spent 22 years on Arizona's death row.
In March 2013, however, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Milke's conviction. It found that the confession was inadmissible, and also ruled that Milke's rights had been violated by the prosecution's failure to disclose a ghastly history of misconduct by Saldate. Among other things, Saldate let a woman off without checking for warrants in return for sexual favors. Additionally, no fewer than eight of Saldate's cases had confessions, indictments or convictions thrown out because Saldate either lied under oath or violated the suspects' rights during interrogations. In two of the most ghastly cases, Saldate interrogated two suspects even though they'd been rendered incoherent due to severe injuries. To the Ninth Circuit's mind, this was exculpatory evidence that Arizona was constitutionally required to turn over to Milke's lawyers.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has stated that he intends to appeal the Ninth Circuit's ruling. If there were any evidence against Milke other than the confession, it almost certainly would have come to light by now. Moreover, Milke's rights were so flagrantly violated that Arizona has lost any moral authority to keep her in custody. After all, as it stands now the case against her is based on the testimony of a police officer who is morally unfit to have a badge.
Given what is available, a retrial of Milke would not be credible, and would only serve as a further indignity to a woman who has spent more than half of her life in custody for a crime she didn't commit. The only way this travesty can end is for Governor Brewer to issue Milke a full pardon.
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