Maricopa County injustice system reaps another black eye

When you mention law enforcement in Maricopa County, Arizona, most people think of Crazy Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his racism, far-right politics, and anti-Obama birther nuttery. But this case arose from the Phoenix Police Department, not Arpaio’s shop, before being mishandled by Maricopa County’s prosecutor, Bill Montgomery.

His office’s efforts to keep Debra Jean Milke on Arizona’s death row, where she lived for 22 years, collapsed today when the Arizona Supreme Court rejected the county’s appeal of a lower court decision ordering her case dismissed.

Her conviction had already been thrown out by a federal court because of police misconduct. Milke plans to sue the county for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations. What’s 22 years stolen from her life worth? This is going to cost county taxpayers a lot of money.

In 1989, when Milke was 25, two men took her 4-year-old son into the desert and shot him. They were caught, convicted, and sentenced to death. Prosecutors claimed Milke put them up to it. But the killers refused to testify against her, even to save their own skins, so the case against Milke consisted only of a purported confession that was neither recorded nor written and existed only in the testimony of a Phoenix detective named Armando Saldate, and now prosecutors don’t even have that, because Saldate won’t testify because he’s afraid of being prosecuted for coercing confessions and lying on the witness stand in numerous cases. Montgomery continued to defend Saldate after a federal court found him to be a serial liar.

This is what a judge of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote about this case in a formal opinion:

“This is a disturbing case. There’s no physical evidence linking Debra Milke to the crime, and she has maintained her innocence since the day she was arrested. Neither of the men who actually did the killing testified against Milke. Roger Scott refused to testify because his ‘testimony would not be what he felt was the truth.’ After spending many years on death row, James Styers continued to insist that ‘Debbie had nothing to do with it and thats [sic] the truth.’ The only evidence linking Milke to the murder of her son is the word of Detective Armando Saldate, Jr.—a police officer with a long history of misconduct that includes lying under oath as well as accepting sexual favors in exchange for leniency and lying about it.”

Milke is out of jail now. For prosecutors, retrying her has been put out of reach, and dismissal of the charges against her is only a formality awaiting a judge or magistrate’s signature. A lawsuit has been promised and will follow.

Why do voters so often tolerate corrupt police departments, dishonest cops, and abusive prosecutors? Because they promise law and order? Because the public believes they keep the crime rate down? It’s questionable whether they do, but in any case, throwing innocent people on death row for half their lives is too high a price to pay for whatever deterrence it produces. Maybe a multimillion-dollar settlement in Milke’s favor will make that price seem too high to Maricopa County voters, too.

Debra_Milke_first_day_of_freedom_20130908153315_640_480Photos: Milke (on her first day of freedom); Saldate and3844montypurse Montgomery

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