PHOENIX — An Arizona woman who spent more than 20 years on death row was released on bond Friday after a judge ruled there’s no direct evidence linking her to the death of her son, other than a purported confession to a detective whose honesty has been questioned.
Debra Milke walked out of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s jail after supporters posted $250,000 bond.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction in March, saying prosecutors should have disclosed information that cast doubt on the credibility of a since-retired detective who said Milke confessed.
Milke, 49, has not been exonerated, but a judge said she could go free while preparing for a new trial in a case that made her one of Arizona’s most reviled inmates.
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Milke was convicted in the death of her son Christopher, 4, who was allegedly killed for a $5,000 insurance payout. His mother was accused of dressing the boy in his favorite outfit in December 1989 and telling him he was going to see Santa Claus before giving him to two men who took the child into the desert and shot him. She had been imprisoned since 1990.
A defense lawyer told the judge last week that Milke would live in a Phoenix-area home purchased by supporters.
Prosecutors declined to comment on Milke’s release and have not appealed the bond order.
Milke, whose mother is a German who married a U.S. Air Force military policeman in Berlin in the early 1960s, has drawn strong support from citizens of that nation and Switzerland, neither of which has the death penalty.
Max Krucker, former president of Emmetten, the Swiss community where Milke’s mother lives, said Renate Janka was “ecstatic” Friday about the possibility that her daughter would be released. She was planning to fly to Arizona, Krucker said.
Milke’s ex-husband, whose name is Arizona Milke, believes his former wife is guilty. He said Thursday he intends to sue her, the detective whose testimony is in question and the state for what he believes is a conspiracy to conceal the boy’s real killer.
Debra Milke was a 25-year-old insurance-company clerk when her son was killed. The jury convicted her of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping. She has maintained her innocence.
The two men convicted in the case remain on death row. Neither Roger Scott nor former Milke roommate James Styers testified at Milke’s trial. Scott confessed during a police interrogation and led detectives to the boy’s body.
According to the appeals court judge’s summary of the case, Milke said that a day after seeing Santa Claus at a mall, Christopher Milke asked his mother if he could go again. That was the plan, she said, when the boy got into the car with Styers. Styers picked up a friend, “but instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove the boy out of town to a secluded ravine, where Styers shot Christopher three times in the head,” the summary said.
Maricopa County prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty against Milke at her retrial, tentatively set for Sept. 30, and her alleged confession is at the heart of the case against her.
Police detective Armando Saldate Jr. testified that she confessed to him in a closed interrogation room. But the confession was not recorded. At trial, Milke denied she had confessed, but the jury believed the detective.
Doubts about Saldate’s honesty arose during Milke’s appeals. The 9th Circuit concluded in March that prosecutors’ failure to turn over evidence related to Saldate’s credibility deprived Milke’s attorneys of the chance to question his truthfulness before jurors.
“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,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the court.
The court noted four cases in which judges threw out confessions or indictments because Saldate lied under oath and four instances in which cases were tossed out or confessions excluded because Saldate violated the suspect’s constitutional rights.
He was also suspended for accepting sexual favors from a female motorist he stopped and then lying about the encounter, the court said.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport, John Miller, Felicia Fonseca and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.