In the United States, individuals who are suspected of a crime are supposed to remain innocent until proven guilty. But what happens when the evidence used to convict faces its own scrutiny years later?
That question will once again take center stage in Arizona this year as an Arizona mother is re-tried for a highly publicized crime committed almost 24 years ago.
On January 18, 1991, Debra Jean Milke was sentenced to death for her involvement in the conspiracy to murder her four-year-old son, Christopher. Milke was convicted and sentenced to death based on a verbal confession she gave to a police detective – a detective whose own actions would be called into question years later.
After spending 22 years in prison, Milke’s murder conviction was overturned earlier this year and she was ordered to be released. Less than three months later, a retrial of Milke’s case was ordered.
As defense attorneys and former prosecutors, we know that a retrial is difficult in a case like this simply because so much time has passed. People move away or die, and original evidence can sometimes be unusable. This case will be especially difficult because of the lack of evidence against the defendant when the case first went to court. Factor in the changed circumstances and motives for other witnesses and the ability to win a retrial becomes even harder.
A trip to visit Santa
According to court documents, Milke and her four-year-old son, Christopher, shared an apartment with James Styers. While Milke worked at an insurance agency, Styers watched Christopher.
In September 1989, shortly after beginning a new job, Milke took out a $5,000 life insurance policy on Christopher as part of her employee benefit plan. The policy named Milke as the beneficiary. Sometime between the time she bought the policy and the time of Christopher’s death, Milke and Styers discussed the policy and the benefits.
On Saturday, December 2, 1989, Styers, with Milke’s permission and use of her car, took Christopher from the apartment. Styers told Christopher they were going to Metrocenter so Christopher could see Santa Claus. Styers then picked up Roger Scott, and the two men and Christopher had lunch and ran some errands.
Later, Styers told police that he first dropped Scott off and then took Christopher to Metrocenter to see Santa Claus. Styers told the police he had to use the restroom, so he took Christopher into the men’s room at Sears and had him wait outside the stall.
According to Styers, that’s when Christopher disappeared. Styers reported this scenario to Metrocenter security; eventually the police were called. In this initial testimony, Styers claimed that he met Scott outside of Sears while looking for Christopher, that Scott told him that he had come to Metrocenter with a friend named Phil, that Styers and Scott looked for Christopher, and that Styers eventually walked Scott to the bus stop and Scott went home.
The Phoenix police interviewed Scott. His first story coincided with Styers’, but ultimately Scott led police to Christopher’s body. After that, a Phoenix police detective interviewed Milke. She was told that her son had been found shot to death in the desert and that she was under arrest.
Milke told police that she did not have a $5,000 life insurance policy on Christopher, but her father did. She denied that insurance money was her motivation, but admitted that it may have been Styers’ and Scott’s because Styers knew of the policy. Milke was taken into custody.
A question of evidence
A lack of physical evidence pervaded Milke’s case and trial. The only evidence that could provide motive for the murder were the inconsistencies in her testimony about Christopher’s life insurance policy: Milke initially denied having a life insurance policy on Christopher, which later changed. Milke later admitted to purchasing Christopher’s life insurance policy.
The inconsistencies of Milke’s statement lead the trial court to believe the insurance policy was the motive behind killing Christopher.
According to an article written by the New York Times, Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate said Milke confessed to plotting the boy’s death in an unrecorded conversation while they were alone. Milke denied confessing, making his account of what happened a case of he said, she said.
Based on this testimony, Milke was convicted of ordering Christopher’s death to claim a share of the insurance policy she had taken out on him.
“The credibility of Armando Saldate should have been called into question before now,” said John M. Rhude. “Saldate has a documented record of perjury and tainting confessions, who is to say that Saldate’s account of Debra Milke’s unrecorded confession was accurate?”
Another source, Injustice Anywhere, states the warning signs that Milke was wrongfully convicted as defined by the Michigan Law University and Northwestern Law:
Co-Defendant Confessed (CDC) – A co-defendant of the exoneree, or a person who might have been charged as a co-defendant, gave a confession that also implicated the exoneree.
False Confession (FC) – The exoneree falsely confessed if (1) he or she made a false statement to authorities which was treated as a confession, (2) the authorities claimed that the exoneree made such a statement but the exoneree denied it, or (3) the exoneree made a statement that was not an admission of guilt, but was misinterpreted as such by the authorities.
Inadequate Legal Defense (ILD) – The exonoree’s lawyer at trial or on appeal provided obviously and grossly inadequate representation.
Official Misconduct (OM) – Police, prosecutors, or other government officials significantly abused their authority or the judicial process in a manner that contributed to the exoneree’s conviction.
Perjury or False Accusation (P/FA) – A person other than the exoneree falsely accused the exoneree of committing the crime for which the exoneree was later exonerated, either in sworn testimony or otherwise.
As Milke’s case goes back to trial, she faces being sent to death row once again. And the questionable confession used to convict her almost a quarter century ago will once again be called into question.