PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona woman who spent 22 years on death row in her son's killing before her conviction was thrown out said Tuesday she doesn't know why the 4-year-old was murdered and had nothing to do with his death, despite allegations from prosecutors.
Debra Milke spoke at a news conference a day after her case was dismissed in the 1989 killing of her son Christopher, who thought he was going to see Santa Claus when he was taken to the desert and shot by two men who are now in prison for his death.
Milke steadfastly denied being involved in the shooting and responded quickly when told that prosecutors still think she had a part in it.
"Based on what?" she asked.
It was the first time Milke has spoken publicly at length since a federal appeals court overturned her conviction two years ago. The appellate court found prosecutors failed to disclose a history of misconduct by the case's lead investigator, Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate.
The misconduct included multiple court rulings in other cases that Saldate either lied under oath or violated suspects' rights during interrogations.
The case rested largely on Milke's purported confession to Saldate, who didn't record the interrogation. Milke, now 51, has disputed that she confessed.
A voice message left for the now-retired Saldate wasn't immediately returned Tuesday.
Prosecutors sought to retry Milke, but the state's highest court rejected that bid last week, leading to the case's dismissal.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he's confident his office could have won another conviction regardless of any questions about Saldate's credibility. He said numerous other witnesses would have testified about incriminating comments made by Milke at the time.
"I have seen nothing in reviewing the entire trial transcript or anything that has been brought up since that would cause me to question the decision of the jury when she was first convicted," Montgomery said.
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 said Tuesday she doesn't know the reason for her son's killing "because there wasn't a proper investigation."
The two men who led the boy to his death were convicted of murder but refused to testify against Milke. One of the men was Milke's roommate.
At the news conference, Milke's voice cracked with emotion as she read a statement saying she suffered two tragedies — the death of her child and the detective's false claim that she confessed to killing the boy. Milke then removed her glasses and wiped away tears.
At one point, she was asked about a box of ammunition police found in her purse when they first spoke with her. Prosecutors say the ammunition was of the same caliber as the bullets used to kill the child.
She said she found the bullets in a roommate's clothes while doing laundry, and put them in her purse.
"Clearly, I forgot they were in my purse," Milke said. "That's the answer."
It's unclear what Milke plans to do now that her criminal case is over.
She expressed relief that it was dismissed but said she doesn't feel happiness.
"The victory is bittersweet," said Milke, whose mother died from cancer last year. "My son is gone. My mother is gone."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.