ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, SEPT. 22, 2013 AND THEREAFTER – FILE – In this Aug. 1, 2013 file photo, Debra Jean Milke attends a hearing as she awaits a retrial in the 1989 shooting death of her 4-year-old son, Christopher, at the Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. Nearly 24 years later, the case will be returning to the courtroom – with the verdict and the detective who made it possible effectively on trial. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)
PHOENIX (AP) — On the final morning of 4-year-old Christopher Milke’s life, his mother sent him off to visit Santa Claus at a Phoenix shopping mall in a triceratops sweatshirt and cowboy boots. Within hours, the little boy with the blond bangs and dark eyes was dead, shot three times in the head, his body curled in a dry desert wash on the fringe of the city.
Investigators quickly zeroed in on the mother, Debra Jean Milke, later condemned by her own family for treating Christopher with contempt. She was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.
But nearly 24 years after the crime, the case returns to a courtroom Monday — with the verdict and the detective who cemented it effectively on trial.
A day after the killing, then-Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate Jr. sat down alone with Milke to question her. A half-hour later, the young mother was arrested for plotting Christopher’s murder based on a detailed confession, one whose veracity she and her defenders have refuted ever since.
But Saldate, a 21-year veteran of the force, proved a most convincing witness. Listening to him, jurors looked past the fact that he had ignored a directive to record the interview, failed to secure a witness to observe it and destroyed his notes. And prosecutors did not share with them, or Milke’s own lawyer, a personnel record that included previous allegations of misconduct.
It came down to his hard-boiled version of the truth over hers, based on words uttered in an interrogation room turned “into a black box, leaving no objectively verifiable proof as to what happened inside,” an appellate court opined in a scathing March decision setting aside Milke’s conviction.
“No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence,” the court said.
This month, Milke was released on $250,000 bond as prosecutors prepare to bring her to trial once more. But holes in the case feed doubts that linger among both those certain of her guilt and those convinced of her innocence. Confronting those questions cannot bring Christopher back, but it is forcing reexamination of the system sworn to do him justice.
After all, the detective’s testimony put Debbie Milke away. Now, will troubling questions about his police work and the way it was presented by prosecutors ensure her freedom?
When Milke came home to Phoenix in the fall of 1988, she was a 25-year-old single mom searching for a job and a place to live, and trying to keep her distance from an ex-husband she despised. Login to read more