PHOENIX (CN) - A woman spent 22 years on Arizona's Death Row for the murder of her 4-year-old son after a Phoenix detective with a history of coercing confessions fabricated her confession, she claims in court.
Debra Milke sued Phoenix, Maricopa County, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Det. Armando Saldate and 12 other officials, on March 13 in Federal Court.
On Dec. 2, 1989, Milke's roommate Jim Styers agreed to take her son, Christopher, to the mall to see Santa Claus. On the way he picked up his friend Roger Scott, and they took the boy out into the desert where they shot him three times in the head. The men then went to the mall and reported the child missing.
Milke, then 25, was brought the next day to a police precinct to be interviewed by Saldate, whom the complaint describes as "a Phoenix Police Department detective with a long history of lying under oath and coercing confession."
Milke says Saldate told her: "We found your son. He was murdered. And you're under arrest."
By this point, Scott had already confessed and implicated Milke in the killing, according to the complaint.
"Exploiting the shock and horror that this news of C.M.'s death caused, Detective Saldate attempted to use his unwitnessed, unrecorded interrogation to coerce a confession," the lawsuit states. "But there was nothing for Ms. Milke to confess - she had nothing to do with her son's murder and did not know anything about it."
Instead of documenting that Milke said she was innocent, Saldate "falsely reported that Ms. Milke had confessed to arranging for her son's brutal murder," the complaint states.
"Saldate and other detectives from the PPD then manipulated the evidence to 'fit' the fabricated confession," Milke claims. "They fabricated additional evidence falsely indicating Ms. Milke was cavalier and uninterested about her son's disappearance, and they used impermissible tactics to cajole witnesses into falsely reporting that Ms. Milke was a bad mother."
According to Saldate, Milke confessed to conspiring with Styers and Scott, and told Saldate she almost aborted Christopher when she became pregnant.
"Styers and Scott would each eventually make statements implicating themselves and each other; their statements, however, directly contradicted each other regarding how exactly C.M. was murdered and which of the two had been the trigger man," the complaint states.
The two men were later convicted separately of Christopher's murder.
Although there was no evidence linking Milke to the crime, her fabricated confession was used against her despite her repeated claims during the trial that she had not confessed and that she had nothing to do with the murder.
"But the jury - which never knew about Saldate's long history of lying under oath and other misconduct, because the PPD and Maricopa County Attorney's office buried it - credited Saldate's lies instead," the lawsuit says. "Based on this fabricated confession, and the other misconduct by the PPD and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, Ms. Milke was wrongly convicted of the capital murder of her own son."
After her trial, Milke says, she and her attorneys "unearthed a mountain of evidence that had been suppressed at the time of her trial," including "that Saldate had a long and documented history of violating suspects' constitutional rights, fabricating evidence and blatant perjuring himself in order to secure convictions, and engaging in sexual misconduct with women under his control."
Arizona courts found that Saldate lied repeatedly about witness statements and suspects' confessions, Milke says in the complaint.
She claims that this information was not disclosed to her attorneys even though the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office were aware of Saldate's history of misconduct.
The police department "continued to promote and support Saldate, and even brought him in to handle their most important cases (like this one). The County Attorney's Office continued to rely on Saldate's testimony and to make him the star of their cases," the complaint states.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Milke's conviction in 2013, finding Arizona "remained unconstitutionally silent instead of disclosing information about Det. Saldate's history of misconduct and accompanying court orders and disciplinary action."
Shortly after Arizona announced it would retry Milke, the 9th Circuit said no, it would not.
"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 9 th Circuit ruled .
Milke seeks compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations. She is represented by Nick Brustin of Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin in New York.