Arizona top court rejects bid to retry ex-death row inmate

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2015 9:38 PM

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona's highest court denied last-ditch appeals by prosecutors on Tuesday seeking to retry a Phoenix woman who spent more than 22 years on death row for the 1989 murder of her 4-year-old son before a federal appeals court tossed out her conviction.

Debra Milke, 51, had initially been sentenced to death for the murder of her son, Christopher, who was dressed in his best outfit and was told he was going to see Santa Claus with his mother's roommate, James Styers, just days before Christmas. But instead of taking the boy to the mall, Styers picked up a friend and took the child to a secluded ravine where the boy was shot in the head and his body left in the desert.

Milke was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and other charges in the case based in large part on a purported confession, which was never recorded, that she arranged her child's murder.

The confession, which Milke denies making, was taken by a detective with a history of misconduct, including lying under oath, that was not disclosed to defense attorneys.

Milke was freed from prison in 2013 after a federal appeals court threw out the conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct and on Tuesday the Arizona Supreme Court rejected a series of legal moves by prosecutors who want to retry her. The court gave no reason for its decision.

Styers and his accomplice, Roger Scott, remain on death row.

"Debra is relieved that justice has finally been done in her case and that she has been vindicated," her defense team said in a statement after the ruling. A county judge still must formally dismiss the case, said Milke attorney Rhonda Neff.

It was not immediately clear what, if any, appeals are now available to prosecutors. A county attorney spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment following the court’s decision.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery called the Supreme Court’s decision “a dark day for Arizona’s criminal justice system.”

“The Arizona Supreme Court has deprived crime victims, particularly Christopher Milke, of their rights to fairness, due process and justice,” Montgomery said in a statement.

Milke filed a civil rights lawsuit against Phoenix and Maricopa County and individual law enforcement officials on Friday saying her civil rights were violated throughout the decades-long arrest and prosecution. The suit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)