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Arizona woman on death row for 1989 child murder expected to be freed

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona woman who spent more than 22 years on death row was released on bail on Friday to await a new trial on charges she conspired to arrange the slaying of her 4-year-old son a few days before Christmas in 1989.

Debra Milke, now 49, was freed shortly after 3 p.m. local time from the Phoenix jail where she had been transferred prior to her release on bond, and she was met there by her attorneys, a Maricopa County sheriff's spokesman said.

Neither she nor her lawyers spoke to reporters.

Television pictures showed Milke, whose bail was set on Thursday at $250,000, being driven away from the jail by one of her lawyers in the latest twist to a sensational murder case that has spanned nearly a quarter-century.

Prosecutors asserted in her original trial that Milke had dressed up her son, Christopher, in his best outfit, told him he was going to see Santa Claus at a shopping mall and sent the boy off in the care of her roommate, James Styers.

According to court testimony, Styers also picked up his friend, Roger Scott, and instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove to a secluded ravine where Styers shot Christopher three times in the head. Both men were separately convicted of first-degree murder and remain on death row.

Milke was found guilty in 1990 of murder, conspiracy, child abuse and kidnapping and was sentenced to death.

But in March of this year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out her conviction and ordered a new trial.

The court ruled that prosecutors had denied Milke a fair trial by failing to disclose a history of lying other oath and other misconduct by a key witness in the case, Phoenix police detective Armando Saldate, who claimed that Milke had confessed.

Saldate's testimony that Milke had admitted her role in the crime was considered crucial to the prosecution case. During the trial, Saldate testified that Milke had told him she had contemplated having an abortion while pregnant with Christopher, had complained to Styers about her son and conspired with Styers to have the boy slain.

But the supposed confession was not recorded, nor was anyone else in the room when it was purportedly made. Milke denied during her trial that she made any confessions and has continued to maintain her innocence.

In setting bail on Thursday, Judge Rosa Mroz of Maricopa County Superior Court said Saldate's history of misconduct "casts serious doubts on the validity of the defendant's alleged confession."

A hearing was scheduled for September 23 to determine if evidence of Milke's confession was still "valid and admissible."

It was unclear whether Saldate would testify in the retrial. A lawyer for Milke could not immediately be reached on Friday, and a spokesman for prosecutors declined comment.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

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