Debra Milke

It is not unusual to find a case in which there is much disagreement among people as to the outcome.  Regardless of any legal decision you can almost always find people who both agree, and disagree with the outcome.  It is rare however, to have a case legally end in the way that this one has.  We hear of cases of prosecution or investigative misconduct; we hear theories of the planting of evidence; we hear people fight repeatedly that they did not receive a fair trial.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I often fall into these categories myself.  I believe it is basic human nature.  There have often been cases in which I have openly said that the defendant, whether I believed to be guilty or innocent, had not received a fair trial.  Sometimes the court agrees, but more often than not they do not agree with that concept.  Even more rare than seeing a conviction overturned (without another suspect or guilty party waiting in the wings of a jail), is to see a case in which it has been determined that to retry the case would constitute a violation of the Constitution to the defendant and all charges be dropped.  This is just such a case.

By the time you are done hearing about this case you may be left in the same position that I am at the moment.  Can I tell you that Debra Milke is guilty of the crime that she spent over 22 years on death row for? No, I am not so sure that I can, but I can just as sure tell you that I am not sure she is innocent either.  What I can tell you are two things.  First, this case was lost forever by the acts of the investigators and the prosecution and secondly, this case opened a spotlight into cases in Maricopa County Arizona.  Many are left wondering who else in Maricopa County may have been convicted under questionable circumstances (Jodi Arias is not one among the questionable cases in my opinion) and will anyone ever be held accountable.

On December 2, 1989 police in Phoenix Arizona were called to a local mall.  A man by the name of James Styers had called them.  He reported that he had brought his roommates son, Christopher Milke to the mall to see Santa Claus and in the process the 4 year old had disappeared.  Styers' friend, Roger Scott was with him.  A search was mounted but nothing was discovered.  Apparently, something had actually tipped off the investigators that something was not right in this case.  The following day Scott was interrogated by the police for 14 hours.  In the end he informed officers that he knew where Christopher was and that he was dead.  He would later take investigators to Christopher's body where they would discover the child had been shot three times in his head.  According to Scott, he and James Styers had taken the child, who really believed he was going to see Santa Claus, out to the desert where Styers had shot the child.  Scott would tell investigators that this was done because Christopher's mother, Debra, had wanted it done and that he would receive at least the money he needed to file a disability claim.  Styers and Debra Milke were almost immediately brought in to be questioned.  Styers has never, to this day, stated that Milke was involved.

Debra, for her part, was interrogated by detective Armando Saldate, in the nearby town of Florence where Debra's father and step-mother lived.  Let me address this issue right off the bat because many have chastised Debra for leaving the Phoenix area while her son was missing.  Although she was obviously (as you will learn later) not super close to her family, with her mother living in Germany, her father, step-mother and sister was all the family she had.  Despite some of their later comments to and about Debra that have come into question, it does seem that they were in contact with Debra and knowing she was distraught over the disappearance of her son encouraged her to come to their home in Florence.  Now, I cannot tell you why they did not decide themselves to go to Phoenix instead but that is not how things worked out.  So when Saldate went to talk to her he had to go to Florence.  Debra was interviewed at the local police station.  It was said that Saldate had been encouraged to make sure he at the very least audio taped the session but he did not.  There was no tape, audio or visual made, nor were there any other people either in the room, or observing from a two-way mirror.  The point is that the only two people who knew what happened in that room are Debra Milke and Armando Saldate.  Saldate would claim and later testify at Debra's trial that although the session lasted about 30 minutes he was able to obtain a confession from Debra.  Again, not only was this session not taped in any way, Saldate did not get a written or signed confession from Debra.  And, although she was arrested on that day Saldate would not make a report, supposedly based on his notes, of the session for three more days.  He would later say that he had thrown his notes away after writing the report.

By this time there were three people in custody for the murder of Christopher Milke.  Both Roger Scott and James Styers were offered deals from the prosecution that would have kept them not only from having a trial but facing the death penalty if they would testify against Debra in her trial.  Both declined.  There are some reports that say that they have been quoted as saying that they did not testify against her because to do so would have been untruthful.  Both would later face their own trials; both would be convicted; and both would be sentenced to death.  To this day it is uncertain which of the two men was the trigger man in this case.  It seems that they both have pointed fingers at each other.

In the meantime the public had decided all three defendants were guilty pretty much from the onset.  Prosecutors would claim at Debra's trial that was conducted in October of 1990 that Debra had been the "ringleader" in having her son murdered because she wanted to move on with her life without the burden of caring for her child and for an insurance policy of $5,000.  I want to address this life insurance policy that seemed to play a large role in her trial.  As I said, prosecutors would claim this was part of the motive for killing her son. Insurance often is a motive for murder, but first, rarely is it for such a small amount and secondly, in almost all cases that involve murder for insurance the perpetrator has gone and bought a policy (legally or illegally) prior to the murder and made sure they were the beneficiary.  In this case the policy that was in place was one that came with Debra's employment, which coincidentally was an insurance company and part of their employee benefits package.  Considering that neither of her supposed co-conspirators testified at her trial about the supposed plot the only information the jury had as that direct evidence came from Detective Saldate who testified to her supposed confession to him.  

That does not mean that the prosecution did not have character witnesses that were willing to testify.  But then again, so did the defense and as is so often the case at trials the witness testimony countered each other.  One of the things that makes this case different than so many others is that Debra's family testified for the prosecution.  It seems her father, sister and step-mother would testify against her.  I should point out that my research indicated that at least for her father, Richard's part, he would later claim that his assessment of the situation changed after talking to Saldate who told him that Debra had confessed.  Richard was was a prison correction guard so he was in some way connected to the law enforcement community and believed Saldate. It was said that not long before his death Richard would indicate that he regretted speaking against Debra at her trial and blamed Saldate for "lying" to him.  Many of the things I read describing Richard as being an alcoholic "tyrant" who was closer to Debra's sister, Sandy, than to Debra.  I read a transcript of an interview between Sandy and Saldate and even she sounded as if she was trying to candy coat how her dad was.  She described him as a very tough man to please or get one over on.  At any rate both Richard and Sandy would testify against Debra at her trial.  Richard was quoted as saying Debra "was never meant to be a mother and if given the opportunity to have more children, she would probably continue to murder again."  This apparently is one of the statements that he supposedly regretted saying at the end of his life.  Sandy (who is named Denise in some articles... I suspect Denise is her middle name since I have seen the initial) also took the stand and claimed that Debra was abusive to Christopher in many different situations. She would also claim to give day care providers the wrong contact information so she could be away from him longer.  To be fair, I saw no reference of anyone one confirming the things that Sandy testified to and many references were made that Sandy and Debra never had a close relationship and there was jealousy on Sandy's part.  However, again to be fair, just as I cannot believe everything that was said in the media or Internet about Debra, I have to say the same for Sandy also.

The only other person that I could confirm that testified for the prosecution as far as Debra's character was Christopher's father, Mark.  Now, after I was done doing my research on Debra and the specifics of the case I did, as I often do, searches on several of the lead characters, Mark being one of them.  Let me start by saying when any relationship ends there is generally three sides to a story.  Each party has their own side and then somewhere in the middle is the truth.  Sometimes you have to piece together what you find with some facts or sometimes just dissect what a person says, which is much of what I had to do in this case.  Of course the prosecutors wanted to hear HIS story on the stand because it was their job to convict Debra of one of the most brutal crimes ever.  We all say often that few people know what goes on behind closed doors but the people who live behind them, and this is true.  But, sometimes if you put the pieces of stories together you can determine who is telling more of the truth than the other about certain things and when you determine which person is less truthful you have to ask yourself what else are they less truthful about.  Mark got on the stand and relayed an incident in which he claimed to have come home from work one day to find Debra holding Christopher's chin very tightly screaming at him, claiming she never wanted him.  Mark would go on to make that claim several years later in an article written from his perspective of his feelings of where the case was heading when a judge had ruled in 2013 that Debra had not received a fair trial.  I have to say that I was not very impressed by Mark.  By the time I had searched Mark I had read several articles already that described Mark and Debra's relationship from the time they got together until well after their breakup. Most everything I had read described Mark as someone who worked only sporadically at best and that was in between his bouts of jail time, most often for drugs and alcohol related offenses.  Again, most everything I read stated that Debra initiated the divorce and that due to his issues she had asked for and was granted sole custody with Mark only getting supervised visitation.  Most of these articles were from independent journalists and those who wrote for newspapers.  Granted, again, not everything that is published is the absolute gospel but there was a lot of it.  Then I came across this article about Mark (who by the way by 2013 had legally changed his first name to Arizona) where he described his relationships with Debra and Christopher.  I should point out that this particular article was not written by Mark himself but was filled with quotes by him so the story was his story and not one someone wrote for him in essence.  According to him it was the incident in which he described in court that prompted him to separate and then divorce Debra because she was mentally abusive towards their son.  He goes on to claim that custody of Christopher was settled with them having equal rights and yet claims he had him nearly every weekend.  Of course this had contradicted everything I had read up to that point.  His only mention of substance abuse in the article said he was a member of AA for 24 years (dating to 1989, the year he and Debra divorced, and coincides with her story that he sought treatment after their split and she went to meetings with him) but "clean" for 18 years (dating to 1995). Something just felt wrong with that article and so of course I kept digging.  I then came across something that talked a lot about how it seemed that when Christopher was murdered it became Mark's platform to use in many areas.  Now, not that someone who has had a child murdered by the hands of someone else does not deserve sympathy, but it was said that he used that as a way to not just garner general sympathy, but to also gain the trust of women.  The article also said Mark had "a long history of domestic violence with numerous women" and mentioned some that were forced to get restraining orders against him.  With all of that said,  while I cannot say that he has not cleaned up his act over the years, I have the feeling that he made himself seem like a better husband and father than he actually was.  Maybe that is because there are those who have judged him saying if he had been a better father, and been around, and if the things he said happened, happened, he could have prevented his son from being murdered.  That, in and of itself, may or may not be true, but in the same respect, it was not Mark who murdered his son.  

So really, aside from Detective Saldate's testimony of a supposed confession; the testimony of an ex spouse who apparently had his own demons; and a few family members who some say had an axe to grind the prosecution had little.  About the only other thing they had was that they had found about 50 rounds of ammo in Debra's purse that matched the ammo for the weapon used.  She had told police that she had been doing Styers laundry the night before the murder and had found them in his pants and for whatever reason put it in her purse.  Does that sound shady? Absolutely but not nearly enough to convict someone on.  

In fact, the trial ended up lasting way longer than it was expected to and some argue that the judge herself, Judge Cheryl Hendrix, also became responsible for the fact that Debra had an unfair trial.  There were many reports that I found that said as the jury went into deliberations and they lasted, apparently longer than many expected, there was a risk of a mistrial or hung jury due to the fact that two jurors had long standing vacations planned to start within a few days.  It has been reported that although the tape of Debra's sister, Sandy's interview with police had not been played to the jury in the trial that she sent that for the jury to listen to.  In that interview not only had Sandy described Debra as "cold and unemotional" but Saldate had indicated to Sandy that when he had interviewed Debra he felt like she was all but "throwing her chest" at him as he interviewed her.  This became part of the tape the jury would hear and Sandy's response basically told Saladate that Debra was a manipulator and that was normal behavior for her.  I have to say that while my research found this information in a few places I cannot guarantee the validity of it.  What I can say is that Hendrix remained as the judge on the case for many years and she denied all motions, especially any that indicated that she or the prosecution side had been unprofessional throughout the trial.  In 1997 Hendrix was removed from hearing criminal cases after she had refused to give the maximum sentence to a repeat child molester after publicly saying that the victim was not "an emotional basket case," in an apparent indication that she had not believed the victim.  It was then made public that in 1985, just a few years prior to Debra's case, she had been "publicly censured" for misconduct as a judge for presiding or mishandling a case in which she knew her law clerk was familiar with as the defendant was known to the law clerk.  

It really seems to be no surprise that with everything that went on that Debra was convicted and sentenced to death.  As is the case with death row inmates, years and years of appeals followed.  In fact in January of 1998 Debra came so close to being executed that there had been a trial run of what would occur on execution day before it was delayed.  Then in March of 2013 a judge overturned her conviction saying she had not been given a fair trial.  Most of this was centered around Saladate.  It came to light that when he had testified at Debra's trial the prosecution had failed to turn over his personnel file.  I can only assume that it was asked for and never received because I have to be honest and say I have never heard of this being something that was readily available to a defense attorney.  At any rate had the defense received his file they would have learned that due to his conduct dozens of cases had been overturned due to his behavior.  In some it was determined he had proclaimed the defendant, like Debra, had made a confession that was later deemed false.  There were multiple cases in which he had violated the rights of people and even lied under oath.  This did not mean that Debra would be released immediately.  It just meant that the prosecutors had to decide what to do.  In July of 2013 the prosecutors announced that they were seeking a new trial and would seek the death penalty.  By this time Debra's father had passed away but even if he hadn't there was no certainty that he would have testified again, so that was one character witness down.  Add to this that the case had generated so much publicity over the last two decades that every skeleton that anyone had came out of the closet so really they were only left with Saladate's testimony as far as anything official.  Saladate later indicated that he would refuse to testify or at the very least would plead the 5th for every question asked (Think Mark Fuhrman in the Simpson trial) so his testimony would be useless.  On September 6, 2013 the courts released Debra on a $250,000 bond that had been raised by her supporters and placed an ankle bracelet on her while she awaited her re-trial.  

While prosecutors had said they planned to re-try her they were also appealing the judge's verdict that overturned the conviction.  They were also asking the court to compel Saladate to testify with the evidence he had in the first trial.  On December 14, 2014 an Arizona appeals court dismissed the prosecution's appeal stating that a retrial would be double jeopardy.  Once again this was appealed and on March 17, 2015 the Arizona Supreme Court declined to look at the case.  Five days later a judge dismissed the case and Debra's ankle bracelet was removed.  It has been said (although I cannot prove) that the case has been sent to the United States Supreme Court for review.  This may or may not have happened; and it may or may not have ruled but I could not find information as such.  It is unlikely that the US Supreme Court will even look at it at all.  

The argument among civilians today seems to be based on Debra's guilt or innocence as well as what the court rulings mean.  Some will argue that the court had ruled her innocent, which they can (technically the term is factually innocent) but that is not the case here.  The courts simply ruled that she had not been given a fair trial and there's ample evidence to prove this.  One just simply has to look at the case to determine this.  After so many years and the discoveries made since then I have to say that I do not believe there is any way to prove her guilt or innocence one way or another.  I will admit however, that looking at the facts of the case if you were to lay it out, they lead more to the fact that she was innocent than guilty.  Why is that? Well, if you weed through the accusations and so called evidence of the prosecution the only thing that for sure seems a bit suspicious was the ammo in her purse that matched the ammo in the case. But, that is surely not enough to prove anything what so ever.  Saladte, who by the way continues to be a detective last I checked, in fact working on the Jody Arias case, and his testimony, as well as history and reputation mars this case significantly.   It seems almost unbelievable that not only would an officer not video or audio tape an interrogation of a subject but not even secure a confession in writing afterwards.  Not to mention he claimed this all occurred within 30 minutes which seems almost unheard of.  

In every case, every person has a story, regardless of what role they play.  And, when one is a defendant, more often than not, their story is to be in their best interest, but some tell their stories for other reasons.  Obviously Roger Scott was involved in this case since he took the investigators to the body. And it seems that Styers continues to admit also being there. Where the two differ is in who actually committed the murder.  Now, whether Scott for sure implicated Debra in his first interview is questionable to me, but it seems that even if he did that even his own confession indicated that he had not heard Debra say she wanted it done but that Styers had told him so.  Regardless, neither man would agree to testify against Debra in her trial despite being offered deals in which would ensure they did not go to death row, which is exactly where they both ended up.  Some have said that they have been quoted as refusing because they said to do so would have been a lie.  In the same respect it has been said that Scott wanted to accept the deal but that his lawyer talked him out of it.  There does possibly seem to be some kind of validity to that as it appears that there has been a review or investigation into whether he received an adequate defense. However, it still does not appear that within his trial that the issue with Debra being involved was brought up as far as I can tell and for me that would have been a number one issue with a defense especially since it has been claimed that both Scott and Styers were possibly of low intelligence, if not mentally challenged.  

Admittedly one of the reasons that I lean more towards Debra's side in this case has little really to do with the crime itself.  When I compare the stories of Debra and her ex-husband Mark as to the quality of their marriage and their parenting skills (or lack there of), the evidence seems to support Debra telling the truth much more than Mark.  I will admit that the lack of support from her father and sister does bother me, but in the same respect the overwhelming support she has received from her mother has no bearing on my thoughts. Debra's mother had moved back to her native Germany when Debra was 19 years old and by all accounts remained there until after this crime was committed.  The blind support of a family member is sometimes, just that, blind and seeing as her mother was not around while Christopher was alive and able to see her interact with the child gives her impression of her being a mother, good or bad, little leverage.  By all accounts Debra was not super close (nor live close) to her father, sister or stepmother, all who testified against her at her trial.  There has been much speculation that her father chose to testify as he had (it seems he did not give any specific information like her sister did) based on Saldate speaking to him.  Neighbors, friends and co-workers, those who seemed closer to Debra have different accounts than her father and sister.  There again though blind support is common, although admittedly I cannot say that is the case here.  

Those who support Debra and believe that she was innocent claim that Styers was behind the murder of Christopher, alone (although with the help of Scott).  What do they claim as his motive?  Many have said that Styers, although quite older than Debra, was infatuated with her. Almost everyone says that their arrangement of living together was not of the romantic nature and that Debra basically just rented a room from Styers with Christopher and helped take care of the house.  There seems to be some evidence that Debra had decided to move from the home, had rented an apartment or was in the process of doing so and that she had informed Styers of this.   It is the claim of these supporters that Styers committed the act without the knowledge of Debra in order to ensure her staying near him. The thought behind it is that he could comfort her in her grief and she would be too grief ridden to move away and would want to stay somewhere familiar. 

Did Debra Milke set up the murder of her son? I do not know.  But, she served 22 years on death row and is now a free woman.  If she was guilty and is now released we can find comfort in the fact that the likelihood of her having another child at her age now is slim (although I admit not impossible).  If she was innocent she is a woman who not only lost her only child but much of her life and definitely her reputation.  Regardless of her guilt or innocence Debra's case is an example of how justice should work in this country.... if only the wheels could turn faster.  Had the courts looked at this case better, or prevented Judge Hendrix from being the sole reviewer, they would have blatantly seen the fact that Debra had not received a fair trial.  Had they done this sooner they may have been able to actually re-try her if in fact they truly believed her to be guilty.  However, in the same respect, as long as people as Armando Saldate are continually allowed to work in his field despite his obvious issues, with little to no reprimand then it would appear that maybe the people of Maricopa County (the 4th largest in the United States) will see little changes.

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