Debra Jean Milke spent 22 years on death row after being implicated in the murder of her 4-year-old son. Now she’s going free, thanks to a belated reconsideration of the record, ethics and honesty of the detective who served as the lead witness in her trial.
But did she kill her kid, or not?
Milke’s 1990 conviction was a big story. She was set to be the first woman executed in Arizona since Winnie Ruth Judd was sentenced in 1932 after she killed at least one woman and shipped her corpse and another woman’s dismembered body from Phoenix to Los Angeles. Milke’s story was less spectacular than Judd’s, but still darkly fascinating: this ordinary woman was accused of successfully arranging the murder of her innocent little boy.
Born Debra Sadeik in West Berlin in 1964, she was the first child of an American airman and his German bride. She grew up mostly near Phoenix, a charming, bright, but largely unremarkable girl. Her parents divorced, and when Debbie was 19 her mother moved back to Germany. Feeling abandoned, she took up with a serious but unreliable boyfriend, Mark Milke, who racked up a series of petty charges, as well as a DUI offense that landed him in prison.
The young couple broke up, but not before Debra Milke gave birth to their only child, Christopher, in 1985. She remained close to Mark’s parents, living for a time with his mother, who bought her a car when hers broke down. Unable to make payments on the vehicle after she moved out and lost her job as an insurance office secretary, Debra relied on a troubled friend who offered her a place to stay and a ride to work.
James Styers suffered from what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. While serving as a marine in Vietnam he’d shot and killed a young Vietnamese boy who’d tried to climb into the transport truck in which he was riding; years later, the distraught Styers was still convinced that he would harm or even kill another child.
Milke apparently had Styers wrapped around her little finger. She told him that their relationship would never be anything but platonic, but he kept hoping, and kept trying to win her over. He babysat Christopher, made them dinner, lent her money, ran errands. And, a court ruled, he killed the boy for her.
On December 2, 1989, Debra Milke dressed little Christopher in his best outfit for an outing with Styers. She told the boy he would get to see Santa Claus at Phoenix’s Metrocenter mall, but that first Styers was going to buy him a pizza and take him to the desert to look for snakes, one of the tot’s favorite excursions.
The next day, detectives retrieved Christopher’s corpse from the northwest Phoenix desert, near Happy Valley Road and 99th Avenue. The four-year-old had been shot in the head three times at close range.
A third suspect, another broke west-sider named Roger Scott, confessed within 30 hours of the murder. He was a friend of Styers and served as his driver on that day.
For over 20 years, the accepted explanation has been that Styers, accompanied by Scott, shot the child at Milke’s behest. Styer’s was reportedly to get the most of the boy’s $5000 life insurance policy, which would be paid once the child’s corpse was “discovered” if they left it someplace obvious enough; Scott would get a fee for driving. Milke was to be free of the child-sized burden that had been weighing her down and that not only reminded her of the man she no longer loved, but that she believed had kept her from the man she now wanted. She’d fallen in love with Ernie Sweat and thought Christopher was in the way (Sweat recounted that he’d distanced himself after seeing the way Milke treated the boy).
During the trial Debra Milke’s friends and family—save her ex-husband, who insisted Debra’s maternal qualities had attracted him to her—painted Milke as a reluctant, even hostile mother. Her sister Sandra was especially eloquent in describing Milke’s frequent annoyance and frustration with little Christopher. Furthermore, the detective who led Milke’s interrogation claimed that she’d told him that she worried that Christopher was the spitting image of his dad and would turn out to be a substance-abusing ex-con just like his father, and that she’d do anything to spare him that fate. The detective also asserted that Milke had told him that she had wanted to abort the child. In fact, he told the jury, she’d confessed to her role in getting rid of him now. Saldate was known for being a tenacious interviewer who got quick breaks on crimes; that certainly seemed to be the case here.
It was that detective’s testimony that sealed the case. There wasn’t any physical evidence tying Milke to the crime, her alleged co-conspirators didn’t testify against her, and her friends’ and family’s testimony was only background information. It came down to who seemed more reliable: star detective Armando Saldate, or the mother who seemed so cold and disengaged in the face of her only child’s murder.
Saldate interviewed all three suspects, but another detective taped Scott’s statement implicating Milke. Milke, Styers and Scott were tried separately and each convicted and sentenced to death; none have yet been executed. Armando Saldate didn’t record Milke’s interrogation—he said that taping tended to make suspects nervous and more reluctant to talk than if he built a rapport with them when they were relaxed—he simply confidently reported that Milke had confessed.
Milke insisted that Saldate fabricated the confession, that he refused her a lawyer and ignored her inability to understand her Miranda rights, and that he took advantage of her as a vulnerable young woman in shock over her child’s murder.
Saldate later told the Phoenix New Times that Milke tried to manipulate him into sympathizing with her and supporting her story, just as he believed she manipulated Styers into getting rid of her son. Saldate hinted that Milke was used to getting her way with men.
Saldate and prosecutors also suggested that Milke was faking her grief at the trial. Saldate pointed out that, during his interrogation and the trial, Milke sobbed but didn’t actually shed a single tear. Milke has always disputed that account, saying both that she cried plenty (she didn’t know her son was dead until Saldate told her during questioning), and that she’s not the type to get emotional and break down in front of strangers.
But in 2013 Saldate’s testimony has successfully been called into question. The prosecution didn’t acknowledge Saldate’s tarnished record in the original trial, though prosecutors are required to furnish the defense with material that might undermine their witnesses or otherwise prevent a “guilty” verdict—and the detective has a notorious history of misconduct. In four cases (or eight, according to another report), courts have ruled that he violated suspects’ Miranda rights or that he lied under oath. Milke and her lawyers have long protested the verdict on the grounds Saldate’s record of lying in testimony.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski saw this as a problem and overturned Milke’s conviction in a 60-page opinion on March 14, 2013. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Saldate’s personnel record be turned over to a federal court, and that his testimony be barred from any new trial against Milke.
Prosecutors haven’t filed an appeal against Kozinski’s decision, losing the opportunity to have the court reconsider yet again or to allow an appeal to be heard, so the woman known for 22 years as Death Row Debbie could go free at the age of 49.
But Kozinski warns that Debra Milke may well be guilty, even if Detective Saldate lied about everything. There’s never been a solid alternate theory as to what happened to Christopher Milke on that December day.
Sources on following page.