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Detective won’t testify again on US child death

December 19, 2013

PHOENIX (AP) — The case against a woman who spent more than two decades on Arizona’s death row in the murder of her 4-year-old son was dealt a crushing blow Wednesday when a judge ruled that a discredited detective won’t be forced to testify at her retrial.

A judge granted former detective Armando Saldate’s request to assert his Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination. A purported confession that Debra Milke gave Saldate is the crux of the case. The judge previously told prosecutors that without his testimony, they won’t be able to use the confession at Milke’s retrial, and authorities have little other evidence.

Milke was accused of having two men shoot her son in the desert outside Phoenix in 1989. She spent nearly 24 years on death row before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction in March. The panel cited the prosecution’s failure to turn over crucial evidence, saying that deprived her attorneys of the chance to question the credibility of the state’s key witness, Saldate, who told jurors she confessed.

Prosecutors declined to comment Wednesday about how the ruling affects their case.

The appeals court cited numerous instances in which the former Phoenix police detective committed misconduct in previous cases, including lying under oath and violating suspects’ rights. The court also found that Milke had not waived her right to have an attorney present for Saldate’s interrogation of her, something he contended she did.

Saldate did not record the interrogation, so jurors were left with his word alone that she confessed. Milke has maintained her innocence and denied she ever told Saldate she had any part in the killing. The two men convicted in the child’s death did not testify against her and remain on death row.

Prosecutors assured Saldate they planned no charges for any wrongdoing. The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it had reviewed the appeals court’s allegations and found there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue federal charges against Saldate.

In addition to finding that Saldate violated Milke’s rights, the appeals court cited eight cases in which he committed misconduct. In one 1982 case, the court wrote, Saldate interrogated a suspect who was strapped to a hospital bed and so incoherent he did not know his own name. The trial court later suppressed the statements.

In 1989, according to court records, when the suspect in a killing invoked his right to remain silent, Saldate pushed on with his interrogation. An appeals court later found that violated the suspect’s rights.

Saldate has declined comment. His attorney did not return messages.

For now, a retrial is scheduled for 2015 while Milke is free on bond. A hearing in the case is set for January.

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