Debra Jean Milke


PHOENIX - A federal appeals court on Thursday threw out the convictions of a woman on Arizona's death row who was found guilty of murder in the 1989 killing of her 4-year-old son, who was shot in the back of the head so the defendants could collect a life insurance policy.

Debra Jean Milke has been on death row for more than 22 years after being convicted of first-degree murder and other charges in the killing of her son, Christopher. Prosecutors say she sent the boy to his death by telling him he was going to see Santa Claus.

Instead, he was taken into the desert by two men and shot three times in the back of the head.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the prosecution failed to disclose information about a history of misconduct by a detective who testified that Milke confessed to plotting her son's murder.

"Some of the misconduct wasn't disclosed until the case came to federal court and, even today, some evidence relevant to (the detective's) credibility hasn't been produced," the ruling said. "In the balance hangs the life of Milke, who has been on Arizona's death row for 22 years."

The ruling reversed a U.S. district judge's ruling and ordered the lower court to require Arizona authorities to turn over all relevant personnel records on the detective.

Once the material is produced and defense lawyers have time to review it, prosecutors will have 30 days to retry her. If they don't, she will be released from prison.

Prosecutors had yet to read the ruling and had no immediate comment. Milke's defense lawyer was also unavailable for comment.

Milke, 48, is one of three women on death row in Arizona.