In September 2013, 2 1/2 weeks after being released from custody, Debra Milke had a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court.
She had spent 24 years behind bars and her eyes were wild, like those of an animal, as she backed into the corner of a crowded elevator, hugging the walls and shaking.
“I was trying to get used to people,” she told The Arizona Republic in an exclusive interview last week. “I was trying not to hyperventilate.”
Milke was a celebrated murderer, convicted of arranging the 1989 murder of her 4-year-old son, Christopher.
Christopher was told he was going to the mall to see Santa Claus. Instead, he was taken into the desert by Milke’s male roommate and one of his friends, and shot in the head.
Milke denied that she had any part in the murder, but a jury thought otherwise. She was sent to death row in 1991 and languished there until March 2013, when a federal appeals court threw out her conviction and her death sentence – not because she was exonerated, but because her constitutional rights had been violated. The prosecution and police had refused to turn over the spotty personnel record of a Phoenix police detective who claimed Milke had confessed to the arranged murder. There were no recordings or witnesses to prove the confession took place.
19 months after the federal appellate decision, an Arizona appeals court determined that it would constitute double jeopardy to retry her for the murder.
Now she lives free in a tile-roofed stucco house in a cookie-cutter development on the fringes of suburban Phoenix.
Her eyes have calmed, her face relaxed as she sits in a darkened room, shades drawn against the light.
She has gained 38 pounds.
“They don’t have ice cream in prison,” she said.
She speaks easily. She is friendly and talkative.
She was 25 and youthful when she went to prison. Now, at 51, she is white-haired and matronly.
“Half my life,” she said, sighing. “I don’t really mourn over that. I can’t get the years back. I accept that. I accept my life as it is now.”
Phoenix is a very different place than it was in 1989. Its population has swelled. So have its boundaries. The freeways baffle her. The supermarkets seem surreally large.
Technology has created gadgets that could not have been imagined in 1989.
Milke is trying to gain insight into who and where she is, like a time traveler from the 1980s who suddenly materialized in the second decade of the 21st century.
She still professes her innocence. Milke claims that she had nothing to do with her son’s murder. But there is no evidence to show she was not involved.
She feels as if she straddles a fence on the death penalty, “a victim on both sides of it,” calling herself the mother of a child who was murdered, who then spent half her life facing execution.
She doesn’t need to see her co-defendants executed.
“It’s not going to change anything,” she said. “They’re going to die in prison.”
She feels she was treated unjustly by the legal system, and even the criminal-defense community is bitterly split on whether she is innocent or guilty.
This is not the story of that argument. Only Milke and the 2 men who took her son to the desert and killed him know what happened. And even then, they may have differing views. But they aren’t talking anyway. While Milke is free, the other 2 remain on death row with little legal recourse standing between them and execution.
This is Milke’s story about being inside, and then about being outside.
“Just imagine being locked in your bathroom for 24 years and no one will let you out,” Milke said. “Just as I had to adapt to prison, now I have to adapt to freedom.”
Learning to live in prison
In December 1989, Milke was recently divorced, and she and Christopher were living in Phoenix with a would-be suitor named James Styers.
In 1 version of the story, Milke wanted the hyperactive child out of her life, and in another version, Styers wanted him gone to improve his chances with Milke. So Styers enlisted a friend named Roger Scott, and on Dec. 3, 1989, they took the boy into the desert and shot him.
Styers and Scott drove to Metrocenter Mall in northwest Phoenix and told a security guard that the child was lost in the mall. Police didn’t believe the story and Scott confessed, implicating Milke. Then he led police to the boy’s body.
Milke was arrested at her parents’ home in Florence and interrogated by Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate. He claimed that Milke confessed her involvement in the murder. But there was no tape or video recording of the confession and no one else had witnessed it. Milke flatly denied she had confessed or that she had arranged her son’s death.
Eventually, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Noel Levy persuaded the jury to bring back a guilty verdict against Milke, and Superior Court Judge Cheryl Hendrix sentenced her to death.
Scott and Styers were also sentenced to death.
Milke no longer remembers which law-enforcement agency came for her on that February day in 1991 when she was taken from a Maricopa County jail to the Arizona State Prison Complex- Perryville in Goodyear.
She was a nervous wreck, and a jail doctor gave her an Ativan tablet to ease her anxiety before they loaded her into a car and drove her west on Interstate 10.
“I just remember the freeway seemed endless,” she said.
As she was led in handcuffs across the yards into the prison, she thought, “I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to live the rest of my life here. I’m going to get out.”
She cried all through her 1st night, angry at “God and everybody.”
Then she began to learn to live in prison.
Technically, she was on death row, but there was no such place in Perryville and she was its only occupant, and even then, it was only semantics. The next woman on death row, Wendi Andriano, who beat her husband to death, would not arrive until 2005. The third, Shawna Forde, an anti-immigrant vigilante involved in a double murder, followed in 2011.
So in 1991, Milke’s cell-block neighbors were general-population prisoners who were being disciplined in maximum security: prostitutes and gang-bangers – bad girls, career criminals. Though officially deemed an ogre, unlike the others, Milke was a middle-class girl who had never been in trouble before.
She saw drug overdoses and fights.
“I’ve seen inmates on fire,” she said, women who lit themselves in desperation and craziness. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff.”
Today, death-row prisoners, especially the men, spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells with little contact with other prisoners or the outside world.
Milke had a cell with a window in its door, and anyone in the unit could walk up to it and talk to her. She had 2 windows to the outside world on the other side of her cell, 1 of which opened about 2 inches.
She was treated like a trustee. After 2 in the afternoon, she was allowed to stay out of her cell until 9 p.m., even going outside in a fenced-in part of her unit. She was allowed to help the correctional officers with dinner. She took correspondence courses.
That changed after 1997, when corrections Officer Brent Lumley was murdered by a male inmate. Afterward, a new wing bearing Lumley’s name was built at the Perryville prison, and the male prisoners were moved to Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis near Buckeye.
Milke had to learn to live in lockdown.
“I had to have the window open around the clock,” she said. “Otherwise I felt claustrophobic. I used to listen to the traffic on I-10 and watch the airplanes and wonder where they were going or coming from.”
Even if she knew what day it was, she lost all sense of time, describing the days as a conveyor belt with 1 rolling into the next. She built a routine: writing from 5:30 to 6:30, then showering, cleaning supplies, TV shows, reading.
She taught herself algebra. She read books she should have read in school, by Leo Tolstoy and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
She became friends with Andriano, and the 2 talked through a vent between their cells. They would pass coffee or tea to each other during shift changes, when they were less likely to be seen, by rolling up pieces of paper and telescoping them together until they had long wands that would reach from one cell to the next.
“Every year it was all the same,” she said. “It just melted one into another.”
Milke’s case tracked through Arizona state courts without relief and then, as happens with capital cases, it bounced into federal court. Her attorneys had uncovered the sordid record of Detective Saldate, who had been fired from the Phoenix Police Department for his bad acts.
In March 2013, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Milke’s conviction and death sentence and ordered that she either be released or retried. The ruling noted that Saldate had a long history of misconduct that called his credibility into question.
On March 14, 2013, Milke said, she was lying on the floor of her cell talking to Andriano through the vent when a female correctional officer came with the news that one of her lawyers, Lori Voepel, was on the phone.
The first thing she said was, “We won.”
“I just started shaking on the inside,” Milke said. Voepel started to explain the ruling. “It went in one ear and out the other,” Milke said.
It took until July before the state of Arizona decided to retry her and transfer her to a Maricopa County jail. The case went to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, and County Attorney Bill Montgomery vowed to continue to seek the death penalty and send Milke back to Perryville.
Milke learned of the transfer the night before she would go. She packed some things, donated her TV and radio so that some other prisoner could have them and was sent to the Estrella Jail in south Phoenix.
Life in jail is harsher than life in prison – no windows, no TV, no clocks.
“You would ask what time it was and no one would tell you,” she said.
She could not stomach the food. She was stressed by the noise. And when she would be taken to her court hearings, she looked as haggard and unkempt and wild as a witch in a fairy tale.
But on Sept. 6, 2013, Superior Court Judge Rosa Mroz ruled that Milke could be released on $250,000 bond. She was taken to Lower Buckeye Jail, where she changed into street clothes. Then her other lawyer, Michael Kimerer, secreted her away by car to Voepel’s office, where a court officer affixed an electronic monitoring device to Milke’s ankle.
“This bracelet means freedom to me,” she told the officer.
She snacked on a vegetarian sandwich that had been brought in for her, because she craved vegetables. And on the way to a welcome-home party at a friend’s home, they drove through a Starbucks restaurant because she had heard in prison that the coffee was wonderful.
“It was gross,” she said.
Welcome to the 21st century, Debra Milke.
Unlike many inmates released from prison, Debra Milke has a strong and wealthy support system, and it is centered in Europe.
Milke was born in Germany, and her parents moved back there and then on to Switzerland, where they lived the last of their lives. Milke’s mother died after Milke was released from custody but before all charges were dropped, so she was not allowed to travel to Switzerland to see her mother on her death bed.
Capital punishment is illegal in Europe, and Europeans are stridently against its use elsewhere. There have been books and movies about Milke, and the French- and German-speaking media have assiduously followed her case.
In effect, she is perceived in Europe as Amanda Knox is perceived in the United States: a poor, innocent woman caught up in some unjust foreign judicial system.
(Knox and Milke, incidentally, have met.)
Subsequently, Milke’s European supporters footed her bond, and she is living in the Phoenix-area home of a German friend.
But on her first night out of custody, she might just as well have still been on the inside.
She ventured timidly out into the house’s backyard. The next night she dared step into the front yard. And on the 3rd day, her German friend took her for a walk around the block.
“It was strange. There were all these houses and cars,” she said.
She was overwhelmed the 1st time she went to the supermarket. “I was amazed at how huge the stores had become and became panicky.”
When she saw a woman and a young boy in one aisle, and heard the child say, “Mommy, I want this,” she fell apart.
Her first trip to Walmart was worse. And the first dinner out at a sports bar was unbearable for the noise, the talking and the overstimulation. She panicked at the State Fair.
She couldn’t bring herself to read or watch television because she had done so much in prison.
She bought a computer but left it in the box for a month, bought a flip phone and then eased into a smartphone but can’t fathom the things she can do with it.
“It was odd to see everyone walking around with a phone, and strange and annoying walking around listening to everyone’s conversations,” she said. “I wanted to just turn around and tell them to shut up.”
Because she was in isolation for so many years, she never got sick. Now she falls victim to every flu bug and suffers from allergies
After 24 years of waiting to get back to life, it was difficult to know what to do because she was overwhelmed by options.
She got a dog. She toils in the garden of her friend’s house.
Her attorneys persuaded her to go back to work and she found a job as a bookkeeper 5 days a week.
Mulling name change
In September 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals dismissed all charges against Milke, ruling that retrying her would be tantamount to double jeopardy. The Arizona Supreme Court let the lower court decision stand. That freed Milke to travel and to move on in her life.
She will spend the next month in Europe, visiting with her remaining relatives there, fulfilling contractual obligations with German media, and traveling to Switzerland to visit her mother’s grave and tend to her estate.
She has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County, County Attorney Montgomery, disgraced Detective Saldate and other police officers, alleging malicious prosecution and civil-rights violations.
She is considering changing her name. She wants to fade into the world but is worried that going to court to change names will call more attention to her and reveal her new identity anyway.
She says she knows where she wants to live – but won’t tell so that she can become anonymous.
She is seeing a psychiatrist.
“I’m trying to figure out who I am today,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move ahead.”
Source: WFMY news, August 3, 2015