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Arizona mother’s death sentence overturned

  • Ruling overturns death sentence for Debra Jean Milke in son Christopher's 1989 murder
  • Court questioned credibility of detective who claimed Milke confessed to role in the killing
  • Attorney general's office will likely appeal ruling
Debra Jean Milke's conviction and death sentence for her son's murder have been overturned

As Jodi Arias fights to avoid a death sentence in an Arizona courtroom, one of the three women currently on the state’s death row has had her conviction and sentence overturned.

In a ruling filed Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that Debra Jean Milke’s defense attorneys were deprived of vital information that could have impeached the main witness against her at her trial for her 4-year-old son’s murder more than 20 years ago.

According to court records, Christopher Milke thought he was going to the mall to see Santa Claus when he left his mother’s home on December 2, 1989. Instead, her roommate James Styers and Styers’ friend Roger Scott drove him to a secluded ravine and Styers shot him three times in the head. The men then drove to the mall and reported Christopher missing, the records state.

Phoenix Police Department Det. Armando Saldate was called in on his day off to assist with the interrogation of Styers and Scott. Scott confessed and led investigators to Christopher’s body. Saldate claimed that Scott also admitted Debra Milke was involved in the murder.

Court records say Saldate testified that Milke confessed to him after he read her Miranda rights, but he did not record the confession or have any other detectives witness it. According to Saldate, Milke told him that she participated in the murder conspiracy and that she had feared Christopher would grow up to be like his father, who she said had alcohol and drug problems.

Milke has consistently claimed since then that she asked for a lawyer at the start of the interrogation, she did not understand her Miranda rights and Saldate twisted her words to falsely make it sound like a confession. Still, a jury convicted her of murder and sentenced her to death in 1990.

Styers and Scott were also sentenced to death.

At a January 2010 federal court hearing on the case, Saldate reportedly maintained that Milke understood her rights when she confessed to him.

“She knew what was going on, probably more so than I did,” Saldate testified, according to the Arizona Republic.

The appellate court stated in Thursday’s ruling that the evidence at Milke’s 1990 murder trial essentially amounted to her word against Saldate’s, and the trial judge and jury believed the detective. However, the court found that prosecutors did not provide the defense with evidence of numerous prior incidents of misconduct by Saldate.

According to the ruling, records showed that judges had thrown out confessions or indictments in four cases because Saldate lied under oath and there were four more cases where confessions were suppressed or vacated because he violated the defendant’s rights during interrogation.

“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,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote.

Kozinski stated that Saldate’s history of lying under oath and violating the constitutional rights of suspects could have led jurors to find him untrustworthy if the defense had been given his complete personnel records.

“Milke’s alleged confession, as reported by Saldate, was the only direct evidence linking Milke to the crime,” Kozinski wrote. “But the confession was only as good as Saldate’s word, as he’s the only one who claims to have heard Milke confess and there’s no recording, written statement or any other evidence that Milke confessed.”

Because information relevant to Saldate’s credibility was suppressed, the court ruled, Milke’s case is to be remanded to the district court with her convictions and sentence set aside. The court ordered that Milke’s attorneys be provided with police personnel records from Saldate’s whole career. Prosecutors would then need to decide whether to retry Milke or let her be released.

“She’s thrilled and obviously she’d like to get out right now, but we’re some steps away from that,” Milke’s attorney Lori Voepel told KNXV of her client’s reaction to the ruling.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office told HLN Thursday that they are reviewing the opinion now and will likely file an appeal.

For the latest on the Jodi Arias trial, watch Nancy Grace Mysteries Friday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on HLN.

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