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AZ Mom Convicted Amid Misconduct Averts Retrial

PHOENIX (CN) - Arizona cannot retry the woman freed after more than 20 years on death row for the murder of her young son, an appeals court ruled.

For the three-judge appellate panel, Debra Milke's 1990 prosecution, based largely on the testimony of a now-disgraced detective, is a "severe stain on the Arizona justice system."

Milke was convicted of the 1989 murder of her 4-year-old son, Christopher, after her roommate, James Styers, and his friend, Roger Scott, took the boy to a ravine where they shot him three times in the head.

They had told Milke that they were taking the boy to a mall to see Santa Claus.

At Milke's trial, now-retired Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate Jr. testified that Milke had confessed to the murder.

Milke, professing her innocence throughout, claimed that she had not understood Saldate's Miranda warnings and that the detective had refused her request for a lawyer.

A jury found Milke guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and kidnapping, and she was later sentenced to death. The Arizona Supreme Court denied her appeal in 1993, and a federal judge in Phoenix later denied her habeas petition.

She spent the next two decades on Arizona's death row until 2013 when the 9th Circuit set aside the convictions and sentence, including a damning appendix of Saldate's misconduct.

Between 1983 and 1990, Saldate was involved in at least eight cases that were dismissed or overturned because he had lied under oath or violated the civil rights of detainees, but none of this information was disclosed during Milke's trial.

With both Scott and Styers refusing to testify against Milke, and lacking a shred of physical evidence linking Milke to the crime, the Maricopa County Prosecutor's Office quickly moved to retry her.

Milke's lawyers in turn petitioned the state appellate court for special-action relief, arguing that double jeopardy barred a new trial.

A three-judge panel with the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed Thursday and remanded the case to the trial court for dismissal with prejudice.

"We are unable to conclude that the long course of Brady/Giglio violations in this case are anything but a severe stain on the Arizona justice system," the opinion by Judges Patricia Norris, John Gemmill and Peter Swann states. "Nondisclosure of this magnitude calls into question the integrity of the system and was highly prejudicial to Milke. In these circumstances - which will hopefully remain unique in the history of Arizona law - the most potent constitutional remedy is required."

The unanimous appeals panel expressed no opinion as to Milke's guilt or innocence in the case.

"Because of the state's severe, egregious prosecutorial misconduct in failing to disclose impeachment evidence prior to and during trial and for years thereafter, double jeopardy bars retrial of Milke under our Arizona Constitution and Arizona Supreme Court precedent," the opinion concludes.

A spokesman for Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery confirmed Friday that he would appeal the issue to the Arizona Supreme Court

Montgomery noted at a press conference in Phoenix on Thursday that there are "multiple discrepancies between specific findings that unfortunately are repeated in this opinion ... that the trial court record does not support."

"Justice and due process for Christopher is a right that he has too,"

Montgomery added. "And it is the job of prosecutors, unfortunately, in situations like this where we have to be the voice of the voiceless."

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