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U.S. Media Helped Keep Debra Milke on Death Row for 20 Years

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The headline for this column by Laurie Roberts ("Police and prosecutors failed us in Debra Milke case") doesn't go far enough.

From http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSt4vUTljd8: Debra Milke-- 20 years on death row
Debra Milke-- 20 years on death row
(Image by YouTube)
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Debra Milke-- 20 years on death row by YouTube

Police and prosecutors behaved egregiously in the Milke case, but it was the media that failed by going along with it for two decades.

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I know this.

In 2000, I was contacted by Kirk Fowler, a former D.E.A. agent who was now working as a private investigator, running his business out of the dojo where he taught aikido. He had worked pro bono for Milke because he believed she was innocent. He suggested I look into the case. I did, and found a horrifying miscarriage of justice. Although I could not say she was innocent, there was not a single item of evidence to suggest that she was guilty. 

Debra Milke's four-year-old son was abducted by her roommate and a friend of her roommate, who took him out to the desert and shot him.  It was close to Christmas, and they told the child, and his mother, that they were taking him to the mall to see Santa Claus. The roommate's friend told the cops, as part of a long, rambling, incoherent testimony, that the child's mother had asked them to do it. The roommate never made any such allegation. Both the roommate and his friend blamed each other for the shooting, and both went to death row" 

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And so did Milke, who has just been released after spending 20 years waiting to be executed. A veteran homicide detective told me that there wasn't enough evidence to justify charging her, let alone convicting her. So what happened?

 After her arrest, she was interviewed by a cop, Armando Saldate, who was notorious for having testimony thrown out in other cases; in at least one case, the judge declared him to have fabricated testimony. Saldate did not tape record the interview, even though his supervisor told him to make sure he did. He asked another cop to leave the room. And then he claimed that Milke had confessed that she was in on the killing, and he charged her with murder. Saldate claimed to have lost his notes. Milke has always denied making the confession or having anything to do with the killing. No other evidence against her was ever found, but she was tried by the media and by a hostile judge, and sentenced to death.

When I learned all this in 2000, I approached various magazines, including Harpers's (for whom I had written about Sheriff Joe Arpaio), and pitched the story.

Not one of them was interested.

It is the job of cops and prosecutors to make arrests and get convictions. In this case, without regard for justice, they did.

It is the job of media to report the truth. In this case, for reasons I have spent 13 years trying to understand, they chose not to do so, and to leave a woman to die on the testimony of a liar.

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In this story, whose crimes are the most heinous?

 

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