On Tuesday, former death row inmate and anti-death penalty advocate Debra Milke shared her story with the Cornell community. Milke was invited by Prof. John Blume to speak to his LAW 4051: Death Penalty in America class, and the event was open to the public.
In 1990, Milke was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder of her four-year-old son, Christopher, as well as conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse. After 22 years in prison, she won her appeal in the Ninth Circuit in March 2013 and was released from prison in September of the same year. She was exonerated in March 2015.
Her story is an “emotional” one, she said. In 1989, Milke was a 25-year-old single mother living near Phoenix, Arizona, struggling to get by after leaving a “bad marriage,” when she took up her friend James “Jim” Styers’s offer to move into his apartment.
On December 2, 1989, Milke’s son, Christopher, asked to go to the mall with Styers to see Santa Claus, and that was “the last time I saw my son alive,” said Milke.
Many hours later, she was escorted into an interrogation room at the Pinal County police department, where Detective Armando Saldate Jr. entered the room and delivered the truth that Milke was awaiting with “despair.”
“He just looked at me and he said, ‘We found your son. He was murdered and you’re under arrest.’ Just like that, in one breath,” Milke said.
After that, Milke was charged with “a whole slew of crimes” based on a confession that Saldate claimed he obtained from Milke in that interrogation room. “That cop lied,” Milke said. “The prosecutors were making up things.” She was ultimately convicted of all charges.
After being put into solitary confinement in prison and losing her first post-conviction appeal, Milke knew that she had to “figure out a way to help [herself].” She familiarized herself with legal language, learned how to read a brief, and got a new lawyer.
In the next three decades, she continually lost appeals. However, despite the occasional “scary moments,” Milke refused to give up.
“An innocent person doesn’t give up. You just don’t,” she said.
Eventually, her case reached the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and on March 14, 2013, the Ninth Circuit judges overruled her convictions on the basis of an unfair trial.
Throughout the entire three-decade-long ordeal, Milke maintained her “cautious optimism” and sense of humor as a coping mechanism for her situation.
She remembered that during a practice run of her execution, a doctor was taking her blood to make sure she was healthy. “Well, check my cholesterol too,” she joked, adding that she probably made the doctor uncomfortable, but that she didn’t care.
Milke describes her experience as having to deal with two tragedies at the same time — first, the loss of her son and second, her unfair trial and the subsequent years in the capital appeals system.
“The win was bittersweet. The legal tragedy, I overcame, but then right at my doorstep was the reality that my son was gone,” she said, her voice catching. She had to put her pain “on a shelf because [she] couldn’t deal with both things at the same time.”
“My son’s been gone for 30 years but it doesn’t matter how many years he’s been gone,” she continued. “Pain is — it’s very raw and it lasts, and it seems like it just happened sometimes, even though it’s been three decades.”
Now, Milke is a member of Witness to Innocence, an advocacy organization composed of exonerated death row survivors, and travels the country to speak about her experiences.
“I like to speak to students because you guys are the future,” she said. “I don’t know if any of you want to be lawyers, but the message I want to get across is that there is a human being behind a case number.”
She also spoke out against the death penalty, stating that executing her son’s killer “won’t change anything. It’s not going to bring my son back.”
“There are so many wrongful convictions that there shouldn’t be a death penalty, because it just takes one time to execute an innocent person, and it’s irreversible,” Milke continued.
Following her talk, there was a Q&A session with the audience. Students generally asked about her life after 22 years of solitary confinement and her reintegration back into society.
Milke said that she had changed all the doorknobs in her house to remove the ability to lock the rooms. She also does not close any doors and has a clock in every room, as she was never told the time when she was in prison.
“In public, I need to know how to get out of a room,” she added. Milke recounted a story of a time she and her nephew, who served in Iraq and also has PTSD, went out to dinner. They both headed towards the same seat at the table, because “he needed to know who was coming in the door. I needed to know how to get out of it.”
When asked about whether people still perceive her to be a murderer, Milke said, “If you want to be judgmental, fine. But you didn’t have to walk in my shoes.”
She currently works as a legal assistant at the law firm of the attorney who helped her win the appeal. When asked about how her interest in law stemmed from the years she spent experiencing the justice system firsthand, Milke quipped that at the beginning of her appeals process, she naively left everything to her attorneys.
“I thought that if you went to law school, then you’re smart and you know what you’re doing,” she said, as the audience’s responded in laughter.
Cassandra Gologorsky ’21, a student in the course, said it was “eye-opening” to hear her story.
“We’ve read a lot of cases in this class, but it’s different to hear it from someone who’s actually experienced it,” Gologorsky said. “I knew it was going to be a very emotional story, but I was surprised — in a good way. She’s a powerful speaker.”