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Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Debra Milke Murder-For-Hire Case

     In December 1989, 25-year-old Debra Milke lived in Phoenix, Arizona with her 4-year-old son Christopher and a man named James Styers. Milke rented a room in Styers' house. A few days before Christmas Milke asked Mr. Styers to drive Christopher to the mall so he could visit Santa Claus. Instead of taking the boy to the shopping mall Styers and a friend drove him to a secluded ravine outside of town where Styers shot the boy three times in the head. Detectives and prosecutors believed that Debra Milke had arranged the murder of her son for a $50,000 insurance payout. 

      James Styers confessed to the homicide and was convicted of first degree-murder. At his trial neither he nor his friend implicated Milke in the alleged murder-for-hire plot. No other witnesses came forward with incriminating evidence against the mother.

     Evidence that Debra Milke had plotted the murder came from a Phoenix detective named Armando Saldate. According to the detective, Milke told him that her role in the conspiracy to murder her son had been "a bad judgment call." Milke's interrogation had not been recorded and Saldate was the only officer involved in her questioning. The mother proclaimed her innocence from the beginning and denied making any kind of confession to Detective Saldate or anyone else. A local prosecutor, relying on the detective's credibility, charged Debra Milke with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping.

     Detective Saldate, at Milke's October 1990 murder trial, testified that the mother had confessed to him regarding her role in her son's homicide. The defendant took the stand, professed her innocence and called the detective a liar. As is often the case jurors believed the police officer over the defendant. The jury returned a guilty verdict. A few months later the judge sentenced Debra Milke to death.

     As it turned out Detective Armando Saldate was in fact a notorious liar. Prior to his interrogation of Milke he had been caught committing perjury in four criminal trials. His credibility was so compromised judges refused to accept into evidence confessions this detective had acquired.

     On March 14, 2013 Chief Federal Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Milke's conviction and vacated her sentence. The 49-year-old had been on Arizona's death row for 22 years. Based on Detective Saldate's history of perjury and other incidents of police misconduct, Judge Kozinski ruled that Milke's confession should have been excluded from her trial. Without this dishonest detective's tainted testimony the prosecution had no case. In rationalizing his decision, Judge Kozinski wrote: "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."

     On September 6, 2013, Judge Rosa Mroz of the Maricopa County Superior Court set the 49-year-old prisoner free on $250,000 bond. County prosecutors said they planned to bring Milke back to trial by the end of that month. Once again, the prosecution would seek the death penalty. The defendant's attorneys petitioned the Arizona Court of Appeals to throw out the first-degree murder charge.

     On December 12, 2014 a three-judge panel on the state appeals court ruled that a retrial in the Milke case would amount to double jeopardy. According to the court, "The failure to disclose evidence calls into question the integrity of the system and was highly prejudicial to this defendant." The appellate court ordered the dismissal of all charges against Debra Milke.


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  2. I remember this story. I lived in Ahwatukee at the time. Still, one has to wonder why she would ask a housemate to take her son to see Santa Claus. Most mothers want to experience that first-hand. And what other motive would he have to kill the boy? He was annoying? I think this should be investigated more thoroughly now that the years have passed, and old allegiances have cooled off.

  3. They should have fried her. Noway in hell is that broad innocent.... But she will meet her maker, and will have to explain herself to her baby boy.... As to y mommy didn't live him to the moon and back!