PHOENIX – Debra Milke was once one of the most reviled mothers around, convicted of dressing her 4-year-old son in his favorite outfit and sending him off to visit a mall Santa Claus with two men who shot the boy execution-style in the Arizona desert.
Milke said she had nothing to do with Christopher’s death, but a detective testified at her 1990 trial that she had confessed to him – and him alone – in a closed interrogation room. Prosecutors said she had her son killed to collect on a $5,000 insurance policy.
Now, Milke could walk free, leaving death row behind after a federal appeals court threw out her conviction Thursday because prosecutors had not turned over evidence of the detective’s history of misconduct, including lying under oath in other cases.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel concluded that prosecutors’ failure to turn over the evidence deprived Milke’s attorneys of the chance to question Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate Jr.’s credibility before jurors.
And because it was the only direct evidence tying her to the killing, that fact could have swayed the jury, the panel ruled.
No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone’s life or liberty, according to the opinion by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.
Barring a successful appeal of Thursday’s ruling, prosecutors will have to decide if they have enough evidence to retry Milke. The ruling doesn’t toss out the confession. It just allows defense lawyers to have all of the detective’s police files.
The ruling has raised questions about other cases in which the now-retired Saldate gave testimony.
The court noted four cases where judges threw out confessions or indictments because Saldate lied under oath and four instances where cases were tossed or confessions excluded because Saldate violated the suspect’s constitutional rights.
He was also suspended for accepting sexual favors from a female motorist he stopped and then lying about the encounter, it said.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said he intends to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and will argue it himself if they accept the case, saying the decision was the first to raise the issue after decades of court hearings.