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Death Row Exoneree Debra Milke Reflects On Her Long Journey To Freedom

Debra Milke was a guest this week on the Injustice Anywhere Radio Program, a show I host on Spreaker.com. This is the first interview Milke has participated in since her press conference in March.

Milke was wrongfully convicted in 1990 in Arizona for the murder of her four-year-old son Christopher in 1989. Milke was released on bond in September of 2013, after her conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The State intended on pursuing a new trial, but their efforts were halted by an Arizona appeals court. The court ordered the dismissal of murder charges, ruling that a new trial would constitute double jeopardy. The court went on to say that the case was an outrage and a stain on our criminal justice system. Milke’s case was officially closed on March 23, 2015.

Christopher Milke was murdered on Saturday, December 2, 1989, in the desert just north of Phoenix, Arizona. He was shot three times in the back of the head at close range. Three people would be convicted for the crime, James Styers, Roger Scott, and Debra Milke.

In the time leading up to the murder, Debra Milke was sharing an apartment with James Styers. Styers asked Milke if he could borrow her car to go to the mall to do some shopping. Christopher begged his mother to let him go along because he wanted to see Santa Claus again.

Later that evening, Styers reported Christopher as a lost child to the mall security and called Milke to let her know that Christopher was missing. Styers told investigators that he saw a friend named Roger Scott, while at the mall with Christopher.

Police would question Styers and Scott throughout the night. According to police, Scott eventually admitted that he knew Christopher was dead and offered to show police the location of the body. Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate reported that Scott made a claim while in the police car on the way to the scene that Christopher was dead because Milke wanted it done. The report from the detective who was driving the car makes no mention of the claim. Scott’s alleged statement, only reported by Saldate, is what led police to view Debra as a suspect.

Milke voluntarily went to the police station to answer questions. She was questioned by Saldate alone in a small room. According to Saldate, Milke confessed to the crime during a thirty minute interrogation conducted by only him. Milke denies that she ever confessed to Saldate and no record of her interview exists. Saldate claimed that his notes taken during the interrogation were destroyed. The interrogation was not recorded and there were no witnesses. Furthermore, Milke never signed any statements during her questioning.

James Styers denied that Milke was involved in the crime and Scott never accused Milke in his court testimony. Styers and Scott were the only two people with Christopher at the mall. They are most likely the only two that truly know what happened on that fateful day.

Debra Milke’s conviction was based solely on the testimony of Armando Saldate. Milke was trapped in what amounted to be a he said she said case between her and a police officer. The jury chose to believe the police officer, condemning Milke to death for the murder of her son.

More than a decade would go by before there was a break in the case. College students working as volunteer researchers for Milke’s defense, uncovered information that exposed Saldate as a dirty cop. Saldate had racked up a laundry list of misconduct throughout his career. His offenses included four court cases where confessions were thrown out because Saldate lied under oath, and four additional cases where confessions were suppressed because Saldate had violated the suspect’s constitutional rights during the course of their interrogations.

Saldate’s misconduct was covered up by the prosecution during Milke’s trial. The outcome of the trial would have gone much differently if the defense had been made aware of Saldate’s history, as required by law.

The revelations about Saldate would eventually lead to Milke’s exoneration, but irreparable damage had already been done. This case has highlighted critical flaws in the United States appeals system. It takes far too long to correct errors. Milke discussed waiting for eight years at one point for a court to rule on one motion, only to eventually reject it outright without even bothering to review it. She often wondered if the world had simply forgotten about her. When Saldate’s history of misconduct was discovered it should have expedited her release. Instead, Milke would wait over 12 more years before a court finally recognized that the State of Arizona was prepared to execute her based on nothing more than the word of a despicable liar.

When it was all said and done, Debra Milke spent over 24 years in prison as an innocent person. She now looks to build a new life in a world that looks nothing like it did when she entered prison over two decades ago. Milke has remained in Arizona since her release, but said the state is not home to her anymore, expressing that she feels like a stranger in her own city.

Milke was 25-years-old at the time of her arrest. She described how she was left alone to fend for herself when her family turned on her. Her parents were very conservative and her father had a military background. He refused to believe that a police officer would lie.

Milke’s mother Renate Janka lived in Switzerland at the time and flew to the US when Milke was arrested. Janka was met by Milke’s ex-husband’s family and Milke’s father, who told her that her daughter had confessed to the crime and that she was guilty. She was told that her daughter did not want to see her, so she flew back home thinking her grandson’s death was ordered by his mother.

Four long years would pass before Milke would make contact with her mother. While in prison, Milke was told that her ex-mother-in-law had passed away. She described how they had been close at one time and that the death caused her to think about her own mother. She decided to write a letter to her mother describing her entire ordeal, pleading with her to learn the truth. She did not want her mother to die believing that she was a monster.

When Milke’s mother received the letter, and realized what had really happened, she began fighting for her daughter’s release. Sadly, Renate Janka was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, so her time with her daughter was short after her release in 2013. Milke described to me how much she cherished those moments, finally being able to hug her mother after 24 long years.

When I asked Milke how she found the strength to survive all of those years in prison, her thoughts went immediately to her son. She said the State failed to properly investigate Christopher’s death. She told me that she was determined to find out what really happened to Christopher that day in the desert, and found strength every day to continue her pursuit of justice.

Milke believes the correct people are in prison for her son’s death but has lost hope in ever finding out exactly what happened to Christopher. James Styers and Roger Scott remain on death row in Arizona for the crime.

Milke has now filed a civil lawsuit against Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, former Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate, and several others that were involved in her wrongful conviction.

Milke’s plans for the future are uncertain. She mentioned the possibility of moving back to her home country of Germany, but for now, she is taking one day at a time.

Debra Milke’s complete interview is currently available as a podcast on the Injustice Anywhere Radio show page.

Interview link: http://www.spreaker.com/user/injusticeanywhere