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Arizona woman released after decades on death row

By Brian Skoloff

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7 2013 8:41 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 1, 2013 file photo, Debra Jean Milke listens to a judge during a hearing as she awaits a retrial in the 1989 shooting death of her 4-year-old son, Christopher, at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. A judge is allowing Milke to be released on bail as she awaits retrial in the 1989 killing of her young son, a case that had her on death row since 1990 until her conviction was overturn this year.

Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File, Associated Press

PHOENIX — An Arizona woman is getting her first taste of freedom in more than two decades after an appeals court overturned her murder conviction, setting the stage for a retrial as prosecutors seek to put her back on death row.

Debra Milke walked out of the Maricopa County Sheriff's jail Friday after supporters posted her $250,000 bond.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction in March, ruling that prosecutors should have disclosed information that cast doubt on the credibility of a now-retired detective who said Milke confessed to being involved in the killing of her 4-year-old son, Christopher.

The 49-year-old Milke has not been exonerated, but a judge allowed her to could go free while she prepares for a new trial in a case that made her one of Arizona's most reviled inmates.

Milke was convicted in the death of her son who authorities believe was killed for a $5,000 insurance payout. Police said Milke dressed the boy in his favorite outfit in December 1989, telling him he was going to see Santa Claus at a mall before handing him over to two men who took the child into the desert and shot him. She had been imprisoned since 1990.

A defense lawyer told the judge last week that Milke would live in a Phoenix-area home purchased by supporters.

Prosecutors declined to comment on Milke's possible release and have not appealed the bond order.

Milke, whose mother was a German who married a U.S. Air Force military policeman in Berlin in the early 1960s, has drawn strong support from citizens of that nation and Switzerland, neither of which has the death penalty.

Max Krucker, former president of the Swiss community where Milke's mother now lives, said Renate Janka was "ecstatic" Friday about the possibility that her daughter would be released. She was planning to fly to Arizona as early as Saturday, Krucker said.

"She said, 'Now I can finally hold my daughter in my arms again,'" he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home.

For as long as Milke has been incarcerated, she and her mother have only met in situations where they were separated by glass.

"They were never able to touch," Krucker said.

A dozen years ago, Krucker was among the organizers of an effort in the Swiss town of Emmetten to support Milke, including by establishing a bank account that collected donations to aid in her defense. The account eventually netted about 200,000 Swiss francs, or about $213,000 today. It's now nearly drained, he said.

Doubts about Milke's guilt and deep suspicion about the reliability of the detective's testimony helped motivate Swiss supporters to donate, as did opposition to the death penalty. Many also had concerns that Milke didn't have access to the best defense because she had too little money, he said.

Now supporters are excited about the prospect of her release, Krucker said, but also worried how she will manage to pay the bond.

Janka, who is suffering from cancer, was already forced to sell her home to help cover her daughter's legal bills, he said.

Supporters also run a website that requests donations through both German and Swiss accounts.

Milke's ex-husband, whose name is Arizona Milke, believes his former wife is guilty and that supporters are fooled by the postings on the website.

"It's fed by propagandized lies," he said Friday. "They write whatever they want and put it up there like it's true."

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