by Daniel A. Rosen |
Ex-death-row inmate Debra Milke’s civil suit against Arizona authorities claiming wrongful conviction was dismissed by a federal judge because she repeatedly destroyed documents relevant to her case.
Judge Roslyn Silver harshly criticized Milke in her ruling, saying the destroyed records would have addressed the main issue at the heart of the case: her supposed murder confession to Phoenix detective Armando Saldate. Detective Saldate had a history of official misconduct at the time, including four other criminal cases in which courts determined he’d lied about confessions.
Milke spent 22 years on Arizona’s death row for the murder of her 4-year-old son before her conviction was overturned in 2013, based on prosecutors’ failure to disclose Saldate’s record of misconduct.
Judge Silver’s ruling said that Milke’s “approach to this litigation has been troubling.” It noted that despite filing the current civil lawsuit in 2015, she travelled to Germany in 2017 and destroyed boxes of documents related to the case, including her personal journal written just after her conviction. In addition, she destroyed numerous other documents accumulated during her time in prison right after her release.
“Those documents, written relatively shortly after the crucial events, obviously would have been useful for supporting or discrediting Milke’s current version of events,” Silver wrote. “Their loss prevents this case from proceeding on the true facts.”
Milke’s attorney said her client will appeal the ruling, calling the decision erroneous.
In overturning her original criminal conviction, Milke claimed that Detective Saldate fabricated her confession, an allegation which Saldate denies. But the interview and supposed confession wasn’t recorded, leading to disputed facts.
Two men, including Milke’s former roommate, remain on death row for the December, 1989 killing. The state says Milke told the child he was going to the mall to see Santa Claus, before he was taken into the desert by the two men and executed. Authorities said Milke no longer wanted the child and refused to give custody to his father.
Despite her original conviction, Milke’s case was overturned by the Ninth Circuit on appeal. The court concluded that the prosecution’s nondisclosure of Saldate’s history prejudiced the case, by failing to turn over all “impeachment evidence” relevant to a crucial witness against Milke.
The state pursued a retrial on the original charges, but an appeals court ruled Milke could not be retried because of “egregious prosecutorial misconduct” in the original case stemming from the nondisclosure of Saldate’s history. The appeals court also noted that Arizona has stronger double jeopardy protections than the federal Constitution.
In dismissing the civil claim, Judge Silver noted that Milke had ample time since filing the complaint to organize her files and review the documents in her custody, and in failing to so so, she’d undermined her claim and caused harm to the defendants.
In her ruling, Judge Silver went on to criticize Milke for wasting the Defendants and the Court’s time and effort by ignoring evidence, litigating baseless privilege claims, being unresponsive to discovery requests, and unnecessarily delaying the case for three years.
By doing so, Silver said Milke imposed an unwarranted burden on the city of Phoenix to try to find relevant documents, and caused the delays. The judge noted that Milke had given access to extensive records to a German citizen who operated her website and social media accounts. And she criticized Milke for attempting to hide extensive contact – including providing 7000 pages of documents, some privileged – with a journalist who wrote a book about her.
The court also appears to have considered sanctions against Milke’s attorneys, but concluded that Milke misrepresented the facts even to her own counsel about the destruction of relevant documents.
Milke’s attorneys claim that the city of Phoenix hid evidence that would have cleared her, and that they also destroyed Saldate’s personnel files. Arizona authorities didn’t respond to a request for comment.