A federal appeals court threw out the convictions of a woman sentenced to death in the notorious 1989 killing of her 4-year-old son,ruling that the case was tainted by a detective with a history of lying under oath.
The ruling marked a surprising turn in a case that made national headlines with the brazen and gruesome nature of the crime.
Prosecutors said yesterday that Debra Jean Milke dressed up her son Christopher in his favourite outfit and told him he was going to see Santa Claus at a mall during the holidays.
Instead,he was taken into the desert by her boyfriend and another man and shot three times in the back of the head as part of what prosecutors said was a plot by Milke and the two other defendants to collect a USD 50,000 life insurance policy.
Milke would have been the first woman executed in Arizona since the 1930s had her appeals run out. The Arizona Supreme Court had gone so far to issue a death warrant for Milke in 1997,but the execution was delayed because she had yet to
exhaust federal appeals.
A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the prosecution failed to disclose information about a history of misconduct by a detective who testified that Milke confessed to plotting her son’s murder.
That record included multiple court rulings in other cases that former Detective Armando Saldate Jr. either lied under oath or violated suspects’ Miranda rights during
interrogations. Prosecutors are required to provide a defendant’s lawyers with material that might support a not guilty verdict,including material that could undermine the credibility of a prosecution witness.
There was no other witness or recording of the purported confession by Milke,who has proclaimed her innocence. “No civilised 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 Justice Alex Kozinski wrote in the decision.
The trial amounted to “a swearing contest” in which the judge and jury ultimately believed the detective over Milke,but they didn’t know of his record of dishonesty and misconduct,Kozinski wrote.
The ruling reversed a US District Court judge’s ruling and ordered the lower court to require Arizona authorities to turn over all relevant personnel records for the detective.
Once the material is produced and defence lawyers have time to review it,prosecutors will have 30 days to decide whether to retry her. If they don’t,she will be released from prison.