DEBRA JEAN MILKE v. CHARLES L. RYAN
NINTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS
Milke spent 25 years in prison before she was exonerated in 2015, with 22 of those years on death row. Each of those 25 years were spent knowing she did not murder her four year old son, Christopher, for which she was convicted and sentenced to death. Milke’s trial boiled down to a swearing contest between Milke and the lead Phoenix Police Detective on the case, Armando Saldate, Jr. At trial, Saldate testified that in his interview with Milke shortly after the murder, Milke confessed to killing her son. Milke protested her innocence and denied confessing.The trial judge and jury believed Saldate’s testimony and disregarded Milke’s, but due to egregious misconduct by the prosecution team, the jury never became aware of Saldate’s long history of lying under oath and other misconduct. The state was aware of Saldate’s misconduct and shady history, but failed to disclose it to Milke’s counsel as required under Brady and Giglio.
As the investigation of Christopher’s death developed, two men confessed to having killed the boy after taking him to the mall. They also implicated Milke in the scheme, which resulted in Saldate’s interrogation of Milke where he later said she too confessed to participating in the murder.In post-conviction challenges to her conviction, Milke raised a number of Brady claims alleging that prosecutors were aware of Saldate’s history of lies under oath and other misconduct in an entire series of other cases, they had a constitutional duty to disclose the Brady evidence to Milke’s lawyers and they failed to do so. Milke’s efforts to collaterally challenge her conviction on the basis of Brady and Giglio violations by the Arizona state courts failed and her conviction and sentence were affirmed. Milke next petitioned the United States District Court for the District of Arizona under the federal law which permits a state prisoner to challenge his conviction in federal court. The district court facilitated Milke’s legal team in locating an abundance of publicly-available case information that revealed Saldate’s long and sordid history of misconduct as a police officer. Unfortunately the district court denied Milke’s habeas petition.
After receiving a Certificate of Appeal ability, Milke appealed the denial of her habeas petition to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Milke’s appeal was premised on the series of blatant Brady and Giglio violations by the state in failing to disclose to her defense Saldate’s sordid history as a liar, perjurer, and all around bad apple.
The Ninth Circuit decision reversing the denial of Milke’s habeas petition was authored by then Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. It is remarkable in a number of respects, one of which is the revelation that Milke was able to discover the court documents showing Saldate’s misconduct only after a team of approximately ten researchers in post-conviction proceedings spent nearly 7,000 hours sifting through court records. In doing so, the research team worked eight hours each day for 3 1/2 months examining case records from 1982 to 1990. The team unearthed approximately 100 cases that involved Saldate. Milke was fully exonerated in 2015. Although the Ninth Circuit decision focused heavily on the impeachment value of the suppressed evidence of Saldate’s misconduct, it is the prosecutor’s constitutional obligation to provide the defendant with exculpatory and impeachment evidence required by Brady and Giglio. In that respect, the
prosecutor is the captain of the ship and it is his or her misconduct that is most significant.