Arizona court tosses charges against woman on death row for 22 years

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An Arizona appeals court has dismissed murder charges against Debra Jean Milke, who spent 22 years on death row in connection with the 1989 death of her son.

In a decision released Thursday, the court ruled that Milke could not be tried again because such a proceeding would constitute double jeopardy. Milke was convicted of first-degree murder but the conviction was overturned more than a year ago by a federal court.

Milke was released from prison on Sept. 5, 2013, according to Doug Nick, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.


The case became a cause celebre in Arizona because in 1990 she was the first woman to be sentenced to death there since 1932. Milke, whose mother was German, also drew support from Germany and Switzerland, which have no death penalty.

A spokesman for the Maricopa County prosecutor said the decision would be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court. A defense lawyer declined to discuss the case.

The case began in 1989 with the death of Milke’s 4-year-old son, Christopher, whose body was found in the desert outside Phoenix.

The prosecution argued that Milke had two men kill her son. The men, Roger Scott and Jim Styers, were convicted and are on death row.

At her trial in 1990, Milke was convicted of state charges including first-degree murder. The case relied on the testimony of Phoenix police Det. Armando Saldate, who said that Milke had confessed.

There was no recording of the confession, but jurors believed the detective, who has since retired.


Milke insisted she was innocent and denied any confession. She eventually appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal appeals court cited numerous instances in which Saldate committed misconduct in previous cases and ruled that the state should have told the defense about those incidents.

Prosecutors had been planning to retry Milke for murder next year, but Saldate balked at testifying for fear of federal misconduct charges.

Meanwhile, Milke sought dismissal of the entire case, arguing that there was no other evidence aside from her purported, and contested, confession.

In its ruling, the Arizona court granted Milke’s request “because of the state’s severe, egregious prosecutorial misconduct in failing to disclose impeachment evidence.”

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