Debra Jean Milke
A confession made of the substance dreams are made on
On December 2nd 1989 Cristopher Conan Milke, aged four, was declared missing in Phoenix AZ, by Jim Styers, roommate of Debra Jean Milke, mother of the young child.
The next day, December 3rd, Roger Scott, a friend of Styers and an acquaintance of Milke, confessed to Detective Armando Saldate, of the Phoenix Police Department that Chris had been shot, according to Roger, by Jim Styers. This happened shortly after 15.35 at the Police Station where Detective Saldate was interviewing him. Scott also volunteered to guide the detectives to the crime scene, a wash (a dried-out riverbed) in the outskirts of Phoenix. When en route to the murder site, at approximately 16.45, Scott added a new character to his version of the crime: Debra Jean Milke herself, as the instigator of the murder of her own son.
Milke was at that moment in Florence AZ at her father’s home.
A car with a couple of Phoenix detectives was dispatched there, while Debra was asked to go to the Pinal County Sheriff Office in Florence (where the County Jail was located), for an interview with the Phoenix Police. In the meantime Jim Styers was arrested at 18.41 in Phoenix and chose to remain silent. Be it by chance or not, more or less in the same time frame Detective Armando Saldate opted for a hike on a Phoenix Police helicopter in order to reach Florence as soon as possible and to personally interview Debra Milke.
He reached the Sheriff Office at 19.53, where Milke and a friend of her family, Janet Froebe, were waiting since about 18.35, and immediately ordered Froebe to leave the room, leaving him and Debra alone, closing the door so that nothing could be heard from outside.
He emerged from the room 35 minutes later with Milke under arrest, even if, according to Saldate’s own report, he did not explicitly state on what charges she was being arrested. According to the reports of the other detectives who were with him in Florence, Saldate didn’t claim at the time that he had just obtained a confession.
Debra was taken back, not handcuffed, to Phoenix in a Police car and subsequently booked and jailed.
The resulting trial, in which the main charge was conspiracy in the murder of her son, lasted from September 1990 to January 1991, and resulted in the conviction of and death sentence for Milke.
In separate trials Jim Styers and Roger Scott were also found guilty and sentenced to death.
They have all been on death row since then.
Anatomy of a conviction
Before analyzing in depth the only piece of evidence brought against Debra at the trial, i.e. the purported confession witnessed by Detective Saldate and by him alone, I have to add a short preface.
I’m Italian, and, as most Europeans, I oppose the death penalty on grounds of principle, so the fact that such an extreme punishment can be inflicted solely on the basis of an unsigned, unrecorded, and strictly speaking even unwritten conviction, strongly denied by the defendant, is something which appalls me to the utmost.
At the same time I’m accustomed to a very different juridical system, which, with all its shortcomings, has the basic quality of requiring a written, fully reasoned explanation of every ruling, so I’m probably at odds with a system where most of the decisions are made on what is heard and not on what is read and where there is no need to explain and justify at length those decisions.
I’ve made this foreword because some of my considerations might appear somewhat strange or unusual to readers accustomed to the American judicial system, but it is not to be taken as a criticism; I’ll try at my best to evaluate everything keeping in mind that this was an American trial.
Back to the case now.
A lot of material concerning the case can be found at www.debbiemilke.com, a site advocating Milke’s innocence which I used as a source for transcripts of Court hearings and of interrogations: neutral material which is not affected by the pro-innocence slant of the site.
This article is mainly based on Milke’s confession, it is not a full review of the case, so interested readers are urged to dig into it more deeply by themselves.
I said that the only evidence against Milke was her own purported confession: of course there was also the accusation made by Scott, but this last element is much weakened by the potential grudges held by Scott against Milke and by the extremely dubious reliability of Scott himself, as will be seen from excerpts taken from his own trial.
Had the case rested on Scott’s accusation alone, Milke would probably have been acquitted: the real “evidence” which condemned her to death is to be found in her confession, a confession whose only materiality, so to speak, reposed in the statements of Detective Armando Saldate, because Milke denied ever having admitted any role in her son’s murder and there is no recording of the alleged confession nor Milke’s signature below any written form of it.
Indeed Detective Saldate put down in writing the confession in its definitive form only about sixty hours after the interview in Florence, on the morning of December 6th.
Saldate said he based his report of the confession on notes he had taken during the interview, but he admitted also that he had destroyed those notes.
The practical effect of this unrecorded, unsigned confession was to put the word of a defendant (against whom there had been a more or less spontaneous campaign of character assassination in the media) against that of a veteran police officer, whose possible episodes of past misconduct were not permitted to be presented in Court.
Let’s now closely look at this fundamental piece of evidence, in the written form given to it by Saldate himself, passages of high interest are in bold and will be commented upon below.
At approximately 1953 hrs, I explained to DEBRA that her son CHRIS had been found in a desert area and that he had been found shot to death. DEBRA immediately began to yell “what, what”. She then started to scream and make noises as if she was crying but no tears were visible. I explained to her that I would not tolerate her crying and that she was also under arrest for her son’s death. Again she became very excited and asked why I was doing this and I told her that she had been implicated in the murder by JIM[not true] and ROGER.
Again DEBRA began to appear to cry and was yelling but again I saw no tears. I again told her that I would not tolerate that type of activity from her and that I was going to question her about her involvement in this murder. I explained to her that it was very important for her to tell me the truth and that the only reason I was there was to get the truth and that I would not tolerate any lies. DEBRA immediately settled down…
DEBRA first told me that she had been feeling sorry for her son because of what he has to go through and that she had told JIM her roommate that CHRIS was probably growing to grow up just like his father and not be any good. She said she may have told JIM this several times but she didn’t think that he would ever do anything to her son to hurt him. DEBRA then began to cry but again no tears were visible. I then told DEBRA that she was not telling me the truth and that I would not tolerate that because I was not here talking to her by accident. I told her that I already knew what had happened but that this was her opportunity to tell me the truth from her standpoint. DEBRA then told me “look I just didn’t want him to grow up like his father, I’m not a crazy person, I’m not an animal, I just didn’t want him to grow up like that.”
DEBRA then continued and said that while she was in high school, she was a very popular person and considered herself to be a very likeable and friendly person. She said her self esteem was very high, she was positive and was in love with life. She then met her ex-husband MARK who she said was involved with drugs and was an alcoholic. After their marriage, she said that MARK was constantly putting her down, telling her that she was no good and would never amount to anything. She said MARK continued to drink constantly during their marriage and to use drugs. MARK was also incarcerated several times during their marriage.
DEBRA also said that because of MARK, she has a very difficult time having sex and feels that it is a dirty thing to do. She believes it was because MARK was into a lot of kinky stuff and was heavily into pornographic material. During this period of time, she said she was taking birth control pills because she did not want to have any children. She said she knew before she had CHRIS that she would not make a good mother and because of that, she never wanted children. CHRIS she said was a mistake and while she was pregnant she had several tests to ensure he was not deformed in any way. At one point during her pregnancy, DEBRA had decided to have an abortion and made an appointment. She, however, failed to show up for the appointment because she felt the pain would be too much.
After CHRIS’ birth, she said she realized she was not going to be a good mother but that the alternative of having CHRIS stay with his father was not any better. She finally got a divorce from MARK and then MARK did end up with visitation rights. For the most part, MARK was always in jail and he could not take advantage of those visitation rights. Recently MARK had been having CHRIS for visitation and she noticed that CHRIS was acting just like her ex-husband MARK. She described CHRIS as being very mischievous and at times malicious. She said this really bothered her because she did not want her child to grow up and be like MARK, spending his time in and out of jails.
DEBRA then told me that she felt very bad about this and said she had a very empty feeling. She then said “I’m not a malicious person, I just wanted God to take care of him.” DEBRA then told me that she was scared about what was going to happen.
Approximately one month ago, DEBRA said that she had contemplated suicide. DEBRA said the more she thought about it, she thought that it would not solve her problems about her son. She said if she committed suicide, MARK would have sole custody of CHRIS and he would definitely grow up like MARK. Because of that, she then spoke to her friend JIM about helping her figure out a way for her child CHRIS to die. DEBRA said at first, she could not tell JIM that she wanted her son CHRIS killed because it was very hard for her. Finally she told him that it would be better for her son to die than to grow up like her husband, his father. She said JIM agreed to help her and that the only agreement they made was that he would not tell her the specifics about the killing.
I then asked DEBRA if she had killed her son because of some insurance she may have had on him and she told me she did not. She then said she did not have any life insurance on him but she believed that her father who lives in Florence did. She also believes that her father was the beneficiary of that policy. I then told DEBRA that it had been my understanding that JIM and ROGER were to receive a partial payment of the $5000 policy which she had on her child’s life. DEBRA denied having a policy but said she may have told JIM about her father’s policy and said that that may have been JIM and ROGER’s motivation for the killing but that it was definitely not her’s.
I then asked DEBRA if she, JIM and ROGER had spoken about how they were going to kill CHRIS and she told me that they had. She said that she and JIM spoke about it several times and she believes that she, JIM and ROGER only spoke about it on one occasion. DEBRA said that she did go out with JIM on one occasion with her son and that JIM was going to “do it” but that something happened and they decided not to do it. I asked DEBRA if do it meant to kill him and she responded yes. DEBRA said the plan was for JIM to do it and that he and ROGER would then go to Metro Center and claim that CHRIS had been lost. She said she never knew what method JIM was going to use to do it.
DEBRA said that during the past month, she has laid in bed next to her son and that her son has told her that he missed his father and wanted to know when his father would be home. She said on those occasions, she felt disappointed that JIM had not done it yet. I asked DEBRA if she was getting angry with JIM and ROGER and she told me she was not getting angry but was disappointed because the longer they waited, the more influence her ex-husband could put on CHRIS.
I asked DEBRA if that morning when her son left, if she gave him a special hug or kiss and she told me that she did not have to. I asked her if she could explain and she told me that approximately one week ago, she told her son that God was coming down and going to take him and that he was going to be going to Heaven. She said she also told him that she would see him later in Heaven. I then asked her if she dressed her son especially for that day with his boots, levis and sweatshirt and she said she did not. She said she let CHRIS pick out the clothes he wanted that day and that he loved wearing his boots.
At approximately 3:20 PM that day, DEBRA said she received a call from JIM and he said that he was at the mall. DEBRA said she immediately realized that he had done it and that her son was now dead. JIM also told her that CHRIS was lost somewhere at Sears and that he had a security guard standing next to him. DEBRA said she never told JIM anything other than to call her back later. When she hung up the phone, she said she immediately prayed to God to take care of CHRIS and that she would not be mad at him if he sent her to Hell. She also prayed to God to do something that would never allow her to have any more kids. DEBRA then told me that she was not crazy and she would hope that nobody thought she was. She said she did this because she loved her son and did not want see him grow up like her ex-husband. She asked me if I understood her and I told her that I understood what she was telling me but that I did not understand the end result.
DEBRA was worried about her family not understanding and said that she believed her family would now disown her. I explained to DEBRA that her family was still her family and that they would probably try to help her but she could not expect them to support what she did. She then told me that she was sure her father would probably think that she was crazy and again said she was not. She then asked me if she thought someone would try to pronounce her insane and I asked her if she was. She then responded “no, I’m just an emotionally troubled 25 year old girl who needs help dealing with her problems.” She then told me that she has had her problems bottled up in her and that she has never been able to express herself from the time she married MARK until now.
DEBRA then asked me how I felt about her and I told her I could understand what she had been telling me but that there were other alternatives if she did not want her child CHRIS. I suggested to her that she could have given her child to the grandparents, her sister or someone else in her family that may have wanted him. She then told me that she probably could have and then said “I guess I just made a bad judgment call.”
A few considerations:
1) Saldate repeats three times that he saw no tears, it is straightforward what he wants to imply, but even if true it does not mean anything: I lost my mother when I was twelve and I did not shed a tear at the time. It seemed strange to me, but it happened.
2) Saldate repeats four times that he would not tolerate this or that, as if this warning could instantly change the mind of the suspect. It’s noteworthy that the same “warning” also appears more than once also in the report concerning Roger Scott’s confession.
3) Just for the record, Jim Styers never involved Milke in the murder, Scott did.
4) The main motive for the murder seems to be that “Chris was going to grow up like his father”, but Chris was just four years old: I would call that a rush to judgement…
5) References to kinky sex, to not wanting children, to abortion, to not going to be a good mother sound a bit like a character assassination.
6) The said elements, together with details about being a popular person at the high school, having contemplated suicide, being an emotionally troubled 25 year old girl and so on provoke skepticism: in about half an hour Debra was able, among other things, to tell the story of her life to a man she had never met before and who was certainly not friendly toward her.
7) Many references to God and praying seem to hint at some sort of mystical-religious crisis in Debra. While people who know her better than Saldate say she never was a religious person, nevertheless, if there really was one, it was the perfect moment to elicit a signed confession…a competent and experienced police officer should realize that.
8) There are only two sentences (besides the one about the 25 year old emotionally troubled girl etc.) which appears as coming directly from Debra’s mouth:
– “look I just didn’t want him to grow up like his father, I’m not a crazy person, I’m not an animal, I just didn’t want him to grow up like that.” which could be a twisted (or maybe Saldate after 60 hours didn’t remember it correctly, or maybe it was in those notes, but unfortunately he destroyed them..) version of something totally innocent that Debra could have really said in a very different context;
– “I guess I just made a bad judgment call.”, the phrase that in Saldate’s recollections practically ends the confession and which marks an abrupt change from an almost mystical crisis and from reiterated assertions (according to Saldate) of her reasons to have her son killed to some sort of “oopsss”…a really hasty change!
9) The only reference to an insurance policy makes it clear from the beginning, even in Saldate’s recollections, that her father was the beneficiary, so that it could not be a motive for the murder since she and her alleged accomplices could not profit from it.
10) The Devil is in the detail: why “the longer they waited, the more influence her ex-husband could put on CHRIS”? If the child was going to sooner or later die anyway, what difference would such an influence have made?
The only other element (calling it “evidence” would be too much) against Debra, besides character assassination in the media, are Roger Scott’s accusations. These type of evidence analysis can be taught from the schools found at getarealdegree.com- criminal justice. I will not delve into them since another article would be needed, but to give some idea of Roger’s reliability in general (many more details, recordings included, can be found at www.debbiemilke.com) it should be enough to quote the following excerpt from Scott’s examination by his lawyer at his own trial:
Roland J. Steinle: Do you take medication?
Roger Scott: I do.
Roland J. Steinle: What type of medication?
Roger Scott: Medication called Drudis (phonetic) for back pain, and Dilantin for seizures.
Roland J. Steinle: Had you taken any medication on the day of the 3rd?
Roger Scott: I don’t believe I had.
Roland J. Steinle: Before you started to tell Detective Saldate what actually transpired out at the wash, you had not slept?
Roger Scott: No.
Roland J. Steinle: You had not taken your medication?
Roger Scott: No.
Roland J. Steinle: Had you eaten at all?
Roger Scott: No.
Roland J. Steinle: When was the last time you had eaten before you made any statements to Detective Saldate?
Roger Scott: When we stopped to have the pizza.[more than 24 hours before]
So, if Debra is not involved, what really happened to Chris?
The judicial truth, as established in their trials has it that Jim Styers was the murderer and that Roger Scott was the driver who took him and Chiris to the wash. However, Scott’s outspoken dislike of the child and of her mother makes one wonder if the historical truth really matches the judicial one.
What can be confidently said is that the behaviour of both Styers and Scott after the murder (the one who had not shot Chris accepting to support the missing child story instead of calling the police and denouncing the other) most probably led the jurors to suspect a conspiracy and hence Debra’s involvement.
However, not a single shred of real evidence (Scott’s allegations not counting as such) ever surfaced linking Debra to the crime or evidencing her role as an instigator.
Hers was a trial in which innuendo, rumors and, frankly, also the lack of a competent counselor (a consequence of her economical situation) made it possible to inflict a death sentence from a confession as nebulous and insubstantial as a fabric of dreams.
It is also to be noted that, since the time of the trial, the rules seem to have changed in Arizona so that today an unsigned, unrecorded “confession” like that of Debra Milke most probably would not be admitted as evidence.
I fully realize that being able to examine the text of the alleged confession (and Saldate’s comments) is not the same as listening in a courtroom to a version of it carefully elicited from Saldate by a shrewd and experienced prosecutor, but doubts should nevertheless have surfaced in the minds of the jurors.
The death penalty was clearly more than a possibility for such a heinous crime and to let such a punishment depend on the word of a single man, without whatsoever corroboration, is tantamount to giving that man a power of life and death over other human beings, a rather sobering perspective.
Saldate could even have been a spotless officer, but jurors should nevertheless have asked themselves whether he was also really competent and reliable.
A competent and reliable officer should try at least to obtain a signed confession when the alleged guilty party seems so co-operative as to quickly confess everything in a half hour interview, moreover interspersed with some religious-mystical elements that should point to a mood of interior peace and of admission of one’s responsibilities.
Is it normal for a competent and reliable officer to wait for sixty hours before writing down in a complete form a confession in such an important case?
Is it normal for a competent and reliable officer to destroy those notes which were the only primary source of the confession, the only one not strictly based only on Saldate’s memory and on its possible faults?
A more than reasonable doubt about the confession should have led to a corresponding degree of doubt as to Debra Milke’s involvement in the murder of her son and hence to her acquittal.
Fortunately Debra is still alive, an appeal is in progress and a petition can be signed at https://www.change.org/petitions/governor-of-arizona-re-trial-for-debra-milke-innocent-to-be-put-to-death-by-the-government: it is not too late to save her and make up for an awesome blunder of justice.