‘Disturbing’ Police Abuse Prompts Death Penalty Reversal

Debra Milke

Appellate judges were so disturbed by a Phoenix police officer’s interrogation of Debra Milke they overturned her 1990 death sentence and murder conviction in the death of her four-year-old son. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday went farther and cited nine other cases of misconduct by the same officer and asked the U.S. Attorney in Arizona to investigate a potential pattern of civil rights violations by the officer and his supervisors.

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote the opinion, but also concurred separately to say, “This is a disturbing case. There’s no physical evidence linking Debra Milke to the crime, and she has maintained her innocence since the day she was arrested.”

The only evidence linking her to the murder of her son by two men she asked to take him to see Santa Claus in 1990 was the word of Detective Armando Saldate, Jr., “a police officer with a long history of misconduct that includes lying under oath as well as accepting sexual favors in exchange for leniency and lying about it.”

In another case Saldate admitted questioning a suspect who was tied to a hospital bed, incoherent after a skull fracture, Kozinski said.

The Murder

Milke’s son Christopher had asked her to let him see Santa Claus at the mall and she agreed to let him go with her roommate James Styers. Styers picked up a friend, Roger Scott, and instead of the mall, drove the boy to a ravine outside town where they shot him in the head. They drove to the mall and reported Christopher missing.

Police began to suspect the two men almost immediately. Saldate was one of the officers questioning the two men. Scott led the officers to Christopher’s body. Scott purportedly said at some point that Milke was involved, but neither man would testify against her and the statement was excluded as hearsay at her trial.

But Saldate seized on the statement and went to question Milke. She was taken to a small room at Pinal County jail where Saldate abruptly told the 25-year-old woman her son was dead. He said he didn’t “buy” her sobbing because she had no tears, according to the opinion.

He continued to question her, without tape recording the conversation as instructed. Saldate claims Milke opened up to him within 30 minutes, waived her Miranda rights, and confessed to a murder conspiracy with the two men.

She has consistently denied involvement in the murder and said she had asked for a lawyer but was ignored. Saldate even testified he destroyed his interview notes after writing his official report. In the end, the jury believed Saldate and convicted Milke. What jurors didn’t know was Saldate’s “long history of lying under oath and other misconduct,” Kozinski said. “The state knew about this misconduct but didn’t disclose it,” despite the requirements of long-standing legal precedents. (Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. U.S.)

Milke has been on Arizona’s death row for 22 years.


The panel ordered Milke’s conviction and sentence set aside. In addition, the state must first give her lawyer Saldate’s police personnel records covering all his years of service, including any discipline. The officials must also swear all the records were disclosed and none destroyed. They then have 30 days to disclose whether they will retry Milke and 90 days to start a retrial if they plan to go forward.

Joining Kozinski in the opinion were Judges Jerome Farris and Carlos Bea.

Case: Milke v. Ryan, No. 07-99001




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