Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Debra Jean Milke - Innocent or Guilty?

Debra Jean Milke
In 1989, a newly divorced Debra Milke moved into an apartment with her young son and a James Styers, a friend of Milke's sister. On December 2nd 1989, James Styers took Milke's four-year-old son Christopher to the mall. They had been gone a few hours when Milke received a phonecall from Styers telling her Christopher had 'disappeared' during a restroom visit at the mall. Debra Milke told him to inform mall security and continue looking for her son, while she dialled 911 to notify law enforcement. Some 24-hours later police arrested a long-term friend of Styers, a Roger Scott, who preceded to take police out to the desert where they were to found little Christopher Milke dead with three bullet wounds to his head. Roger Scott immediately pointed the finger at James Styers telling police Styers had murdered Christopher on Milke's say so. 

The following day, due to the implication by Scott, Jim Styers was arrested. Debra Milke went to the Pinal County Sheriff's office voluntarily, where she was told to wait in the jail dispensary. Called in on his day off lead case detective, Armando Saldate arrived via helicopter to interview Milke. Apparently, all other detectives had been told not to acknowledge or talk to her. After telling Milke's aqquaintance, who she had brought along for moral support, to wait outside Detective Saldate took Milke into another room. Here he was to begin interrogating her, with  no other witness or even a tape recorder present. Three days later, Detective Saldate submitted a report indicating that, in his prescence, Milke had confessed she had wanted her son dead and that she had been the main instigator behind his murder. The reason Milke had wanted her son dead, she didn't want him to grow up to be like his father who suffered with alcohol and drug problems. There was no taped or written confession, Saldate was the only witness to Milke's apparent confession. Despite this, Debra Milke was charged with child abuse, kidnapping, conspiracy to committ first degree murder and first degree murder. During her trial, prosecutors relied largely on the 'confession' that Detective Saldate insisted Debra Milke had given him. They told the jury that on the day of her son's death, Milke had dressed him in his favourite outfit and told him he was going with a friend to see Santa at the mall. Instead, little Christopher Milke was taken to the desert and executed, shot three times in the back of the head by Scott and Styers. There involvement apparently, was due to the promise of a share in £5000 life insurance Debra Milke told them she would get in the event of Christopher's death. In October 1990, Debra Jean Milke was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death. Roger Scott and James Styers were also found guilty and sentenced to death as well.

Christopher Milke

Debra Milke was to sit on death row for the next eighteen years before the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona decided to file an amicus brief on her behalf. The brief questioned how reliable Milke's confession could be considering it was both unrecorded and uncorrobated. After nearly two years, in September 2009, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals found there was no evidence that Milke had voluntarily waived her Miranda rights before speaking to Detective Saldate. The court ordered the Federal Court Judge give Debra Milke a new trial. Suprisingly, the judge ruled against Milke, insisting there was little evidence to prove her Miranda rights had been removed involuntarily. He felt the conviction was constitutionally sound and threw out her attorney's requests for a new trial. Despite this, her attorney's were to continue appealing and, in March 2013, The U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Debra Milke's defence team were deprived of vitally important information during trial. 

Despite Detective Saldate's repeatedly stating that Debra Milke had waived all her Miranda rights voluntarily at the start of her interview and had gone on to confess her motive and role in the murder, Milke had always stated she requested an attorney at the beginning of the interview. The court ruled that evidence produced in court was little more than Milke's word against Detective Saldate's. In addition, important evidence that questioned Detective Saldate's crediabilty was withheld by the state. The fact that, on four previous occasions it was found Detective Saldate lied while under oath and he had also had countless confessions thrown out because he had failed to follow procedure during interrogation were withheld from Milke's defence. The state had chosen to keep Saldate's history quiet. Had the jury been aware of Saldate's past indiscretions they may have been less likely to take his word over that of Debra Milke. For that reason, both Milke's conviction and sentence were overturned. Milke walked out of the prison she had called home for 24 years in September 2013. In March 2015, after much appealing on behalf of the state and Debra Milke, she was completely exonerated with the court ruling that prosecutors could not retry Milke for murder under double jeopardy laws. 

Of course, just because Debra Milke's conviction was eventually tossed does not mean she wasn't guilty of the crime. Many people seem to assume Milke was released because she was found innocent, this is not the case at all. She was released because the state did not fufill its burden to prove she had committed murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, her conviction relied solely on the evidence of a Detective whose track record for honesty was less than desirable. A record the state had a duty to provide to the defence team, whether they asked for it or not. While there is no denying Detective Saldate was the only person to testify in the Milke case, other things were brought up that may have helped the jury decide to convict. For instance, while waiting for their trials Debra Milke and James Styers kept in regular contact by letter. In not one of these letters did Milke talk about Christopher, she didn't express grief at his loss or even offer memories of her son. Instead, she chose to write about how fattening the prison food was. She also wrote in another letter 'if I get convicted Jim, I may as well kill myself. If I have to stay in prison for the rest of my life, what do I have to live for?' There was no anger at a potential miscarriage of justice, no mention that her life was over because of the loss of her son. No, Milke just wrote about herself. In a report sent to the judge during Milke's 1991 sentencing, her own father, himself a corrections officer in Florida, wrote ' Debra should never have been allowed to be a mother. If she is let out and goes on to have more children then she will keep murdering'. Debra Milke's own sister went on record as saying she had seen Milke be abusive to Christopher on more than one occasion. She referred to one time when Milke had locked a naked Christopher out of the house as punishment for messing his pants. Another incident she recalled, saw Milke deliberately withheld medicine from her small son because she was furious he had been sick. Her sister also said Milke was well known for given false or incorrect contact information to daycare personnel and babysitters, so she could avoid the responsibility of being a mother for longer. While none of this proves Debra Milke murdered her own son, it certainly paints a picture of someone who could well be capable of it. 

Today, Milke lives in a house bought for her through donations from her many supporters. She is currently pursuing damages from the state on the grounds that she was the victim of a malicious prosecution, which led to a gross miscarriage of justice. There is no denying that Milke's case was handled terribly by officials from the very beginning. However, do you think Milke was unfairly imprisoned for 24 years, or do you think she managed to get away, eventually, with murder?

Both Roger Scott and James Styers remain on death row with limited appeals remaining. 

Debra Milke Cannot be Retried for Murder.


  1. They wanted to try her again, however the Arizona statutes for "double jeopardy" allowed her to walk free and not be subject to another trial. She should have been tried again. Having stated that, I do believe that the money trail leads to the ultimate answer. What motivation did the two men have for murdering this little boy? The child was not molested and the two men had no other motivation other than money. I believe a jury would have convicted her in spite of the detective.

  2. You are right Admin, it was far from oh just set her free and forget it. I know prosecutors fought long and hard to get a retrial. I don't think she is innocent either. I think, unfortunately, the rogue behaviour of one law enforcement officer has ultimately led to Milke getting away with murder. She didn't have one person testify in her defence, not one member of her family, a friend, even an aqquaintance that could testify she was a good, loving mother. In fact, her family said quite the opposite. It is also worth noting that, although she had always maintained her innocence of the actual murder, in the beginning she was more interested in appealing her sentence NOT her conviction. You have to ask yourself how these men knew an insurance policy existed, not only that but for how much too ($5000) and the fact that it did pay out in cases of murder - although it was stipulated that murder for hire was not included in this. I believe, like you, that even without the testimony of the detective and the alleged confession, a jury would have found her guilty anyway.