Attorney Lori Voepel, from Phoenix, Arizona, won a stunning appeal last week for Debra Jean Milke, who spent 22 years on death row for the alleged murder of her 4 year old son. The Arizona Court of Appeals ordered the dismissal of murder charges against Milke and agreed with Voepel that to conduct a retrial would amount to double jeopardy. The Court was extremely critical of the prosecutors’ failure to turn over evidence during Milke’s trial about Detective Saldate who had a long history of misconduct and lying. The case was largely built on the detective’s testimony that Milke had confessed to him in spite of the fact that it was not preserved by recording or in writing. The Court called the prosecutors’ actions “a severe stain on the Arizona justice system” and stated that the failure to turn over the evidence “calls into question the integrity of the system and was highly prejudicial to Milke.”
The Huffington Post detailed the appellate twists and turns starting from the federal habeas to 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that resulted in the conviction being reversed in March of 2013. Listen here to Voepel discussing the 9th Circuit’s ruling last year.
The 9th Circuit cited numerous instances of now-retired Detective Saldate committing misconduct in previous cases, lying under oath, and violating suspects’ rights. The federal appeals court went as far as asking the Justice Department to investigate whether he had committed civil rights violations. Thereafter when the prosecutors were preparing for a retrial the detective refused to testify and asserted his Fifth Amendment right, which the trial judge accepted. When the State appealed, the court’s ruling was reversed after both State and Federal authorities said they would not prosecute him. Finally, the last appeal resulted in the Arizona Court of Appeals agreeing that a retrial would amount to double jeopardy. Some news reports have indicated that the County Attorney plans to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. In September of last year Milke posted bond and was released from prison after spending close to 25 years in prison to await her retrial and the appeals the followed.
This case is yet another example of the insidious nature of Brady violations. Here the prosecutors had evidence that went directly to the credibility of the main witness against the defendant and rather than follow the law, they chose to break the law. Thankfully in this instance Lori Voepel was able to demonstrate that Brady evidence existed but wasn’t turned over. This kind of case is a prime example as to why we, as trial attorneys, need to remain vigilant about Brady and continue to shine a bright light on the damaging effects of Brady violations. Congrats to Lori Voepel and her tireless fight for justice for her client. Bravo!