Bulletin Daily Paper 09-22-13

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TH E BULLETIN• SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2013

TODAY'SREAD: JUSTICE ON TRIAL 1

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By Brian Skoloff and Adam Geller

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The Associated Press

PHOENIX — 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 themother, Debra Jean Milke, later condemned by her own family for treating Christopher with contempt. She was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. But nearly24 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, thenPhoenix police Detective Armando Saldate 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, a21-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 securea witness to observe it and destroyed his notes. And prosecutors did not share with them, or Milke's own lawyer, a personnel record that i ncluded previous allegations of misconduct. It came down to his hardboiled 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 d ecision setting aside Milke's conviction. "No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence," the court sard. 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 amongboth those certain of her guilt and those convinced of her innocence. Confronting those questions cannot bring Christopher back, but it is forcing re-examination 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?

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Debra Jean Milke, convicted in the 1989 shooting death of her 4-year-old son for an

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Ross D. Franklin /The Assoaated Press file photo

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mall, Scott told police, the two men drovetothe edge ofPhoenix, telling Christopher they were going to look for snakes. There, amid rocks and creosote bushes, Styers shot Christopher, then drove to the mall and reported him missing. Scott, court records show, told police that the killing was Milke's idea — and that all three had planned to share in a $5,000 life insurance policy she held on the child. The day afterChristopher's disappearance, Saldate and Milke came face-to-face, and soon the mother was placed under arrest along with her alleged cohorts.

Among them, according to court documents: • In 1973, Saldate was suspended forfive days after he stopped a female motorist and "took liberties" with her before agreeing to meet her later for sex. He then lied to investigators about the incident, admitting to it only after a polygraph test. In a disciplinary write-up, signed by the police chief and the city manager, Saldate was told "your image of honesty, competency, and overall reliability must be questioned." • In 1982, he interrogated a suspect who was strapped to a hospital bed and so incoherent he did not know his own name. At a later court hearing, those The trial statementswere suppressed. On the w itness stand at • In 1989, whenthe defendant Milke's 1990 t r ial, S aldate in a killing invoked his right to spoke with the assurance of a remain silent, Saldate pushed man who'd spent many hours on with an interrogation, telling in courtrooms. Confronted, the man he didn't want an adthe detective testified, Milke mission but only his side of the opened up to him. story. An appeals court later "'Look, I just didn't want him found that had violated the deto grow up like his father. I'm fendant's rightsan d suppressed not a crazy person. I'm not an some of the statements. animal. I just didn't want him Other allegations cited in to grow up like that,"' Saldate the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of testified she told him. Appeals opinion setting aside "She said that she then de- Milke's conviction include lying cided that it would be best for or omitting details in testimony Christopher Milke to die." before grand juries. When it was her turn to take The police department gave the stand, Milke denied uttering "free rein to a lawless cop to those words. She also claimed misbehave ... undermining the she neverwaived her right to integrity of the system of justice have an attorney present, and they were sworn to uphold," the that Saldate badgered her into court's chief judge, Alex Koztalking. While Saldate's reinski, wrote in an opinion that counting was correct in con- also castigated prosecutors. tent — except for anything that The appeals panel sent its could be considered a confes- opinion to federal authorities, sion — it was wrong in context, asking them t o i n v estigate she told jurors. whether S a ldate's c onduct Jurors, though, placed their amounted to r epeated civil faith in the detective's account, rights violations. Last month, despite learning he had failed the U.S. attorney's office in Arito record the interrogation. zona said statutes of limitations But there was more: Milke's had passed and it had no case sister, Sandy, testified, describ- against Saldate. ing a woman who was never fit Saldate retired in 1990, and to bea mother. Before sentenc- was later elected to a county The murder ing, she reiterated those claims, constable post. He has since When Milke came home to telling court officials that Milke left that job and still resides Phoenix in the fall of 1988, she once taped a pacifier to Christo- in Phoenix. He did not return was a 25-year-old single mom pher's mouth to keep him from messages from the AP. His lawsearching for a job and a place spitting it out and sometimes yer also has not returned teleto live and trying to keep her threw himacrossthe room. phone messages. The Phoenix distance from an ex-husband The jury also learned that Police Department declined she despised. The two were, Milke had dated aco-worker, comment, as did Levy. nevertheless,bound together Ernie Sweat. Prosecutors deBill Montgomery, the chief by a son. scribed a b u dding relation- county prosecutor now, dis"He looked like my clone," ship with long-term potential misses the a ppeals court's recalls Christopher's father, — until Christopher got in the f indings a s a "wild-goose who has since changed his way, which, they said, played chase" and insists it got the name from Mark to Arizona into the motive. Sweat, in an allegations against S a ldate Milke and remains convinced interview with The Associated wrong. He called the court's of his ex-wife's guilt. "Debbie Press, said the notion of Chris findings "patently false," reoften called him Mark by mis- as a burden is "absolutely not ferring to them as "grandiose take, and he'd get this Kool-Aid true." mischaracterizations." grin on his face and say, 'I'm Milke, meanwhile, often apAshepreparesto retry Milke, not Mark. I'm Chris. Mark's my peared cold and detached on Montgomery is also standing daddy.'" the witness stand, which her by Saldate's testimony about Markwell heard little from supporters blamed on antide- Milke's confession. Asked if he Milke after she and Christopher pressants she was taking. felt Saldate was an honest poleft Colorado. But back in PhoeBrent Whiting, who covered lice officer, Montgomery said, nix, Milke found ready support. the trial as a reporter for The "I believe he gave honest testimony" at Milke's trial. She frequently left Christopher Arizona Republic, remembers with her sister, Sandy, her ex- one moment when the prosecuBut his ability to retry Milke husband's parents or her father. tor produced Christopher's tiny hangs on whether a new jury Soon she found a secretarial cowboy boots. Milke's face, will believe Saldate — and if job at an insurance agency. Whiting recalled, soured with he will even testify. The others And she met James Styers, disgust. charged in the case, Scott and "What jurors saw was a very Styers, never testified at Mila Vietnam veteran who sublet her and Chris a room in his cold heart," Whiting said. "I ke's trial. They were convicted apartment. thought It's all over.'" of murder in separate trials and Then came the morning remain on death row. of Dec. 2, 1989. According to AdeteKtiVe'S reCOrd Saldate's attorney said in Milke, Christopher asked his At trial, Milke's lawyers had court this month that he had mother if he could go with Sty- sought to learn more about De- advised his client to assert his ers to a shopping mall to see tective Saldate, but requests for Fifth Amendment right against Santa Claus. On the way, Sty- the entirety of his personnel file self-incrimination. A new judge ers picked up a friend, Roger were rebuffed by prosecutors, has made clear that if Saldate Scott. the Phoenix Police Department doesn't take the stand at her reWhat authorities say hap- and the trial judge. Not until trial, Milke's purported confespened next is based on inter- Milke was already convicted sion can't be used. views Saldate and others con- did a far fuller portrait of the On Monday, attorneys on ducted with Scott and Milke. policeman — and his past prob- both sides return to court to disInstead of heading to the lems — begin to take shape. cuss the case.

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