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Debra Milke

Other Female Exonerees Who Falsely Confessed
On Saturday, December 2, 1989, 42-year-old James Styers asked 25-year-old Debra Milke, who had moved into Styers’ apartment with her four-year-old son, Christopher, following her divorce, if he could borrow her car to do some errands and go to a shopping mall in Phoenix, Arizona.

Christopher, who had been to the mall the previous day and visited the mall’s Santa Claus, asked if he could go with Styers to see Santa again. Since Styers, a family friend, had babysat for Christopher in the past, Milke agreed and stayed home to do laundry.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Styers telephoned Milke and said that he had lost Christopher at the mall. He said he was working with security guards there to find the child and would call the police. After an hour passed and Milke heard nothing further, she called police herself. Police came to the apartment and arranged for a trap and trace on the telephone in the apartment in case the boy had been kidnapped and a ransom call was made.

At the mall, police questioned Styers about how he lost the boy. They also questioned Roger Scott, a friend of Styers, who showed up at the mall while the search for the boy was continuing.

By the next morning, Milke, who was distraught, went to stay with her father in Florence, Arizona with the consent of the police. That same morning, Phoenix police called in Detective Armando Saldate, Jr., to question Styers and Scott. Saldate had a reputation for being able to solve cases through interrogations that resulted in confessions.

Saldate questioned Scott aggressively, threatening to send police to the home of Scott’s elderly mother and conduct a search. Scott, a chronic alcoholic who had several previous head injuries that left him with brain damage and caused frontal lobe seizures, eventually told Saldate that he knew the location of Christopher’s body.

Scott led police into the desert about 20 miles from the mall where they found Christopher, who had been shot three times in the head. Saldate later claimed that Scott implicated Styers and Milke and said the boy was killed to cash in on a $5,000 insurance policy on his life.

Saldate traveled by helicopter to Florence to question Milke. He later claimed that Milke confessed. Although his supervisor had ordered him to tape record the interrogation, Saldate did not do so. Milke was charged with capital murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping. She was taken to Phoenix, where she was subjected to further questioning by other detectives and was shocked to hear that Saldate said that she had confessed. Milke denied confessing and accused Saldate of fabricating her supposed statements.

Milke went to trial in September 1990. Styers, who had told police that Milke was not involved, and Scott, who rejected a prosecution offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder in return for his testimony against Milke, were still awaiting trial.

The prosecution’s primary evidence against Milke was the testimony of Saldate, who claimed that during the interrogation, Milke flashed her breasts at him and offered sex if he would not arrest her. Saldate said Milke admitted she conspired with Styers and Scott to kill the boy to obtain the insurance money. Prior to trial, the defense subpoenaed Saldate’s personnel file in an attempt to discover if there was any evidence that could be used to impeach his testimony. The police department and the prosecution examined Saldate’s file and filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The motion was granted.

No forensic or physical evidence linked Milke to the murder.

Milke denied to the jury that she confessed and accused Saldate of concocting the admissions he testified to.

On October 12, 1990, the jury convicted Milke of all the charges and she was sentenced to death.

Styers and Scott admitted taking part in the abduction and murder, although who actually shot the boy was never completely clear. Styers claimed that Scott was the shooter. Both Styers and Scott were also convicted of capital murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping. Both also were sentenced to death.

In 1993, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld Milke’s convictions and sentence. Over the next nearly four years, attorneys, researchers and investigators for Milke spent almost 7,000 hours going through criminal court records on microfiche from 1982 through 1990 searching for Saldate’s name. The research revealed considerable impeachment evidence against Saldate, including judicial findings of misconduct in eight separate cases.

Despite the findings, Milke was unsuccessful in state post-conviction proceedings and in 1998, she filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The writ was denied by a federal district court judge, but in March 2013, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted the petition.

In vacating Milke’s convictions and sentence and ordering a new trial, the Court of Appeals held that the prosecution had violated Milke’s constitutional right to a fair trial by failing to turn over the evidence of Saldate’s misconduct. The court said the "egregious misconduct" was a "severe stain on the Arizona justice system.”

“This includes a five-day suspension for taking ‘liberties’ with a female motorist and then lying about it to his supervisors; four court cases where judges tossed out confessions or indictments because Saldate lied under oath; and four cases where judges suppressed confessions or vacated convictions because Saldate had violated the Fifth Amendment or the Fourth Amendment in the course of interrogations,” the Appeals Court said. “And it is far from clear that this reflects a full account of Saldate’s misconduct as a police officer. All of this information should have been disclosed to Milke and the jury, but the state remained unconstitutionally silent.”

When the Maricopa County District Attorney’s office said it would retry Milke, her attorneys, Michael Kimerer and Lori Voepel, filed a motion to dismiss the charges because the prosecutor's conduct was so egregious that a second trial would violate the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.

In January 2014, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Rosa Mroz denied the motion, ruling that she did not believe that the evidence of Saldate’s misconduct was intentionally concealed or that the original prosecutor, Noel Levy, acted in bad faith.

Meanwhile, in September 2013, Milke was released on bond. In December 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals, reversed Mroz’s ruling and ordered the charges against Milke dismissed.

In finding that a retrial would violate Milke’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy, the appeals court said, “We are unable to conclude that the long course of (...) violations in this case are anything but a severe stain on the Arizona justice system.”

The prosecution appealed to the Arizone Supreme Court, but in March 2015, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. On March 23, Judge Mroz dismissed the charges against Milke. Attorneys for Milke filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Saldate, who had retired, as well as numerous other Phoenix police officers, and the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office. In 2020, the lawsuit was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/19/2015
Last Updated: 11/2/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Abuse, Kidnapping, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1989
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No