By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. federal appeals court on Thursday tossed out the conviction of a woman who has spent more than 22 years on Arizona's death row after being found guilty of conspiring to murder her 4-year-old son in 1989.
Debra Milke, 48, was placed on death row after she was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy and other charges in the death of her son Christopher in December 1989, in a case that drew wide media coverage at the time.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction on Thursday, ruling the prosecution failed to disclose the history of misconduct, including lying under oath, of the detective who allegedly obtained Milke's confession to the crime.
During Milke's trial, the court heard she sent her son Christopher to a Phoenix shopping mall in the days before Christmas in 1989 with her roommate, James Styers, according to court documents.
But on the way, Styers picked up his friend, Roger Scott, and instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove to a secluded ravine where Styers shot Christopher three times in the head. Both men were separately convicted of first degree murder and are on death row.
Milke, who was not present at the crime, was convicted in 1990 of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping on the strength of testimony by Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate, who said she confessed to the crimes.
The detective testified that Milke told him she had contemplated having an abortion while pregnant with Christopher and had complained to Styers about her son. The detective said she confessed to conspiring to the murder, although she protested her innocence and denied the claim.
In its ruling, the court said the state failed to disclose Saldate's substantial misconduct record, which included four court cases where judges tossed out confessions or indictments because he lied under oath.
The court said that, without the detective's testimony, the prosecution had no case against her, as there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime and neither of her supposed co-conspirators — Styers and Scott — would testify against her.
"The panel held that the state remained unconstitutionally silent instead of disclosing information about Det. Saldate's history of misconduct and accompanying court orders and disciplinary action," the ruling said.
"Some of the misconduct wasn't disclosed until the case came to federal court and, even today, some evidence relevant to Saldate's credibility hasn't been produced, perhaps because it's been destroyed."
The appeals court ordered the state to provide Milke's counsel with the detective's personnel records. The district court was then ordered to release Milke, who is one of three women listed on Arizona's death row, unless the state should decide to retry her.
The Arizona Attorney General's office said it was reviewing the opinion and would likely appeal.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)
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