Debra Milke, née Sadeik, was born in Berlin, Germany, to a U.S. military family. In 1965, the Sadeiks moved back to the U.S., where Debra attended high school and college.
In April 1983, Debra met Mark Milke in a biker bar in Arizona. Debra and Mark were married in December 1984 and the following October, Debra gave birth to her only child, Christopher Conan Milke. By that time, Mark had become an alcoholic and a serious drug addict. One day, during a particularly violent altercation, he threw Debra and the little boy out of the house. They ended up moving into an apartment with Jim Styers, a man Debra knew through her sister. Debra and Mark were divorced in 1988.
Styers, a Vietnam veteran, had some mental issues, suffering from recurring nightmares of the killings in which he had participated, and he had a sleazy friend, a heavy alcoholic, named Roger Scott.
On December 1st, 1989, Debra took the young Christopher to the Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix to see Santa Claus. The next morning, on December 2nd, Styers asked Debra to let him borrow her Toyota for a trip back to the mall, and Christopher asked if he could come for the ride. He was hoping to see Santa again. And this is where the drama began.
Early in the afternoon on December 2nd, Styers, apparently in distress, called Debra on the phone to tell her that he had lost Christopher in the mall. He asked if the boy had called home to tell her where he is. Hearing her negative response, Styers insisted that she should call the police. Debra went into action, her concern for her only child and the love she could not bear to lose growing.
A police officer came to the home and agreed to stay by the phone in case Christopher should call. Being a clever four-year-old, Christopher had memorised and could dial his mother’s phone number. Needing to be with family, Debra hitched a ride to her father’s residence in Perryville, near Phoenix, where he worked as a guard at the local prison. Debra’s younger sister, Sandy, was still living with him.
When Debra arrived, she was told the Phoenix police wanted to talk to her. The sheriff picked her up and brought her to the police station in Perryville, where she was brought into an examination room. Soon after, a large, heavy man arrived in rolled-up shirtsleeves and a black tie hanging loose around an open collar, a prototype of the “red-necked bully”. Detective Armando Saldate, an ambitious, ruthless go-getter had a personnel record which showed a number of instances of misconduct, including lying under oath, a fact which would not be revealed during the conviction trial to come.
Saldate’s ensuing interrogation was not witnessed by anyone, it was not recorded or overheard, nor was his report signed by Debra Milke. He even went so far as to declare that he threw away his notes shortly after the interview. However, during the later trial, under oath, he stated that Debra had confessed to her role in the plot to murder her son.
Debra Milke offered a vastly different story of the interrogation and denied that she had confessed to any role. Saldate claimed that Roger Scott had told him that Milke had been involved in a plot to kill her son, but neither Scott nor Styers testified in Milke’s trial.
Prosecutors floated a likely motive, a $5,000 life insurance policy she had taken out on the child, but Milke had obtained the policy as part of the employee benefits package from the insurance agency where she worked. Apart from Saldate’s testimony, no other witnesses or direct evidence linked Debra Milke to the crime. The trial was no more than a he-said/she-said contest between Saldate and Milke.
Debra Milke sat silently, not allowed to speak, not even to cry, numb within her own thoughts. “I had to be quiet. But everything in my head was screaming: Liar, you’re a goddamned liar! He was so overbearing, so unbelievably arrogant. And he was allowed to describe in detail all the things I had supposedly confessed to him.”
Multiple opportunities were missed to challenge the presented “evidence” by Debra’s inept court-appointed defence lawyer, who counselled Debra not to cry out or to challenge, but to try to maintain a calm, collected demeanor. No doubt, to the judge and jury, preconditioned by the graphic delivery of Saldate’s concocted findings, the silent acceptance of the accused appeared to be the expression of a guilty person.
In October 1990, Debra Milke was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, child abuse, and first-degree murder. On January 18, 1991, she was sentenced to death.
Styers and Scott were charged and tried separately. Both were convicted of first degree murder and also sentenced to death.
Shortly after Christmas in 1997, Debra received a notification that her execution date had been officially set for the 29th of January, 1998. With it, the Arizona justice system issued its final declaration of judgment without any further possible appeal. However, Debra’s lawyer made a last-ditch effort to prevent the lethal injection and filed a writ of habeas corpus. The answer to this last question could save Debra’s life – were her human rights violated in the trial?
Over the course of years and two failed appeals, Debra Milke remained convinced that she would be free one day, that the truth of her innocence would be recognised. She educated herself about the American justice system by reading the daily Arizona Republic and, in that paper, found Mike Kimerer, a successful defense attorney. Debra wrote to her mother, asking her to contact the lawyer, to ask him to take her case. Kimerer accepted and worked on it for 15 years.
On March 23, 2015, after 22 years on death row, Milke was exonerated. Judge Rosa Mroz threw out her conviction and dismissed her case, ruling that she had not received a fair trial. It held that Milke’s rights had been violated by the failure to turn over Saldate’s personnel file to the defense. That file included eight cases where confessions, indictments or convictions had been thrown out because detective Armando Saldate had either lied under oath or violated the suspects’ rights during interrogations.
Throughout this tenacious fight for human rights, had a new legal ruling been created whereby an American lawyer is forced to submit all evidence in court, including evidence which would benefit the defendant, Debra Milke’s case would have been dismissed long ago. In my mind, there is still a fundamental problem with the U.S. criminal justice system, which is due to an ingrained culture that has not evolved in its democratic governing principles, unlike European states that have advanced from the barbarism of the Middle Ages to a more liberal but orderly society, and where the death penalty has been eliminated without effecting an increase in crime.
As reported in an article titled “The American Nightmare” in the German Magazine DER SPIEGEL, Issue Nr. 14/4.4.2015, page 85: “In no other country in the world are there so many citizens in prison awaiting to be executed than in the United States of America. Close to 3,000 inmates are waiting to be poisoned, gassed, hanged, or to be electrocuted in an electric chair, or otherwise just shot.”
On the other hand, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre, since 1973, 151 inmates have been released from death row and given their freedom as a result of an appeals process, where errors of fact or the violation of citizens’ rights have been made in judicial proceedings. It is ludicrous that the murder of a child could be committed by the mother simply for the sake of cashing in a negligible life insurance policy. It takes a criminal mind to construe such a motive, and a stupid mind to insufficiently scrutinize such a preposterous suggestion.
It is only possible to cultivate and enlighten the minds of the people of that great country by providing equality in access to higher education, and providing equal opportunities, particularly to women who have the good sense to study hard and who have the potential to become excellent lawyers, negotiators for peace, and world leaders.