A panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Debra Milke's attorneys should have been told a Phoenix police detective who was the lead prosecution witness had a "history of misconduct," CNN reported. The detective testified Milke had admitted being involved in the killing.
"The Constitution requires a fair trial," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said. "This never happened in Milke's case."
Christopher Milke's body was found in a desert ravine in December 1989. Milke's roommate, James Styers, told the boy he would take him to see Santa at a Phoenix mall and instead, working with a friend, Roger Scott, killed him and dumped the body.
Milke was found guilty at a separate trial and given a death sentence in October 1990. Detective Armando Saldate testified Milke admitted organizing the killing to collect an insurance payout on her son.
Scott and Styer did not testify at her trial and there was no direct evidence linking Milke to the killing. Saldate did not record his questioning and said he discarded his notes.
"The trial was, essentially, a swearing contest between Milke and ... Saldate," Kozinski wrote.
The court found the prosecution had a constitutional obligation to tell the defense Saldate had been suspended for "taking liberties" with a woman driver and that eight confessions had been thrown out because the detective allegedly lied or violated suspects' rights.
Kozinski ordered the state to give Saldate's personnel file to Milke's lawyers and said a "police official" must swear the record is accurate and complete. He said she must be released unless she is notified soon of the intention to retry her.
Scott and Styers remain on death row.