Debra Jean Milke listens to a judge during a hearing at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix in 2013.
Photo by Ross D. Franklin/AP

Debra Jean Milke, Arizona woman who spent 22 years on death row, has murder case tossed

Updated

PHOENIX — A judge on Monday dismissed the murder case against an Arizona woman who spent more than 20 years on death row in the 1989 killing of her 4-year-old son.

Debra Jean Milke hugged her supporters and sobbed as she exited the Phoenix courtroom. Judge Rosa Mroz ended the case after prosecutors lost their last appeal last week.

Milke was convicted of murder in 1990 in the death of her son, Christopher. Authorities say Milke dressed him in his favorite outfit and told him he was going to see Santa Claus at a mall in December 1989. He was then taken into the desert near Phoenix by two men and shot in the back of the head.

Authorities say Milke’s motive was that she didn’t want the child anymore and didn’t want him to live with his father. Milke has maintained her innocence and denied that she confessed to the killing. The two men who led her child to his death were convicted of murder but refused to testify against Milke.

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An appeals court overturned Milke’s conviction in 2013, ruling that prosecutors failed to disclose a detective’s history of misconduct. Her conviction was based entirely on a confession Milke gave to the now-discredited detective, which he didn’t record.

The federal appeals court threw out Milke’s conviction and death sentence, arguing prosecutors knew about Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate’s record of misconduct but didn’t disclose it. Multiple court rulings in other cases said the now-retired officer either lied under oath or violated suspects’ rights during interrogations.

Saldate has said he would not testify at any retrial, citing fears of potential federal charges based on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ accusations of misconduct. Both county and federal authorities have said they don’t intend to seek charges against the detective based on any accusations leveled by the federal appeals court.

Milke filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County and numerous individuals. She alleges authorities violated her civil rights. She also contends she was denied a fair trial and was a victim of malicious prosecution.

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Debra Jean Milke, Arizona woman who spent 22 years on death row, has murder case tossed

Updated