While it's true that not every death sentence means the death row inmate will actually be executed by the state, it's beyond rare for a defendant sentenced to death to literally get a get-out-of-jail-free card. But on Monday, a woman previously convicted of first-degree murder was formally pardoned of any and all formal charges. Debra Milke, a former death row inmate, was formally exonerated by an Arizona judge for the death of her four-year-old son.
Milke was arrested over 25 years ago for the murder of her son, Christopher. What's the crime? Here's the story: in December 1989, Milke left her son with her roommate, James Styers, and told Christopher he was going to meet Santa Claus. But instead of taking Christopher to a Phoenix-area mall to meet St. Nick, Styers met up with another man and took Christopher to a secluded ravine. The boy was shot in the head and left in the desert. In 1990, Milke was charged with — and found guilty of — first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse, and kidnapping. She served 23 years in prison, on death row.
But after all those years in prison, Milke was freed: in March 2013, Judge Rosa Mroz overturned her conviction in a federal court of appeals.
Why were Milke's charges dropped? The conviction was overturned based on prosecutorial misconduct. Apparently, Milke's conviction was largely based on a confession overheard by a detective, Armando Saldate, who testified in court. But back in 1990, the court was not informed that the same detective had a long history of lying on the stand.
Milke said she never made the confession the detective claimed to have overheard, which was never recorded or witnessed by anyone else. Since 2013, prosecutors have been trying to appeal the dropped charges, but on Monday, after a brief hearing, a judge formally dismissed all charges. The hearing was a last-ditch prosecution attempt to appeal the 2013 ruling, asking for a new trial, but the judge ruled that a second trial would amount to double jeopardy. Milke has been free on bond since 2013, but now she is officially free — no ankle bracelet and all.
The ultimate ruling on this case leaves a lot of questions to be answered. How could someone be imprisoned on death row for over 20 years with a conviction based on only one piece of evidence — and a flimsy conviction at that? How could it have taken 20 years for Saldate's history of misconduct to get Milke out of prison?
Milke has just as many questions, and she's looking to answer them — she's suing the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County, and several individuals, alleging violations of her civil rights. Milke claims she was denied a fair trial and faced "malicious prosecution."