The American Nightmare: Debbie Milke Recounts Life on Death Row
Debbie Milke, born in Berlin, was placed in solitary confinement Arizona for 22 years after being falsely convicted of conspiring to kill her son. Following her acquittal, she discusses her experience in prison and a life destroyed by a miscarriage of justice.
Early in the morning on Feb. 4, Debbie Milke was transferred to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville near Phoenix. She sat in the backseat of a police car. As she peered out the window, it would be the last time she would see homes, trees and plants for the next 22 years.
Security officials removed her from the vehicle in front of the high security prison. "My hands and feet were shackled and I could only take baby steps," Debbie remembers.
Then she describes what can only be called indescribable. "The closer we got to the building, the louder the women became." Debbie purses her lips and makes fists with her hands. It's as if she's trying to strike at something in the air.
"The women banged against their cell doors. They called out Ba-by-kill-ler, Ba-by-kill-er!"
Debbie lowers her gaze. She has no words to describe how she felt at the time. "I just kept talking to myself constantly: Stay calm, Debbie. They don't know any better, and they don't know the truth." The walk to her cell seemed to take an eternity.
Debbie was placed in cell 265, in solitary confinement. Behind the blue door, the cell measured 86 square feet and contained a bed, a toilet, a sink and walls covered with graffiti. The steel door closed behind her with a clank, leaving her standing there in her cell, prisoner number 083533, dressed in jeans and a light blue T-shirt, holding a few documents and a toothbrush in her hands.
"I tried to breathe calmly to prevent myself from panicking. I kept telling myself: This place isn't your home, Debbie. You'll get out of here one day. This place isn't the end.
It smelled like cement and dust. The light was dim. The worst thing was the noise. My cell was above the wing where they kept the suicidal inmates. The women below me were constantly whimpering, all those years."
Whenever Debbie left her cell, either to take a shower or for yard exercise, she had to undress.
Debbie, now 51, gets up from her brown armchair. Against her black T-shirt, her hair looks even whiter and her skin paler. For almost a quarter century, Debbie hardly ever saw the sun.
She then demonstrates a so-called strip search. She extends her hands, rotates them, lifts her arms and exposes her armpits. She opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue. Then she folds down her earlobes. Finally, she turns around and lifts up her hair, bends over and indicates that she is pulling apart her buttocks, coughs three times and then points to the soles of her feet. By the time she is finished, her face looks drawn and tired.
Debbie is still wearing an electronic bracelet around her right ankle. It is Sunday, March 22, 2015, the day before what is probably her most important court date. On the next day, the State of Arizona will have to officially admit that it was not Debbie who committed a brutal crime, but rather the state that committed one against her.
According to the charges at the time of her trial, Debbie allegedly solicited acquaintances to shoot and kill her four-year-old son Christopher in the Arizona desert. A jury found her guilty, despite the lack of solid evidence against Debbie. The testimony of a dubious police officer sealed her fate.
On Jan. 18, 1991, a court sentenced Debbie to death even though she was innocent. If the State of Arizona had had its way, she would have been executed on Jan. 29, 1998. Debbie was already being prepared for the execution in Perryville.
"They call it a 'dry run,' the test run for death. Electric chair or lethal injection? What happens to my body? Who gets my belongings? As soon as an execution date has been set, you have to answer a lot of questions. That alone is enough to scare you to death.
A dry run is a procedure based on regulations. At first, my cell was searched every evening to make sure I wasn't hiding anything I could have used to kill myself. And then, suddenly, there was this doctor in a white coat. He tied off my right arm with a flexible tube and ran his fingers along my elbow. 'What are you doing, I asked?' 'I'm checking to see how healthy your veins are,' he replied. It was at that point that I realized they were really serious. And that's when I fell apart."
Over the years, the Arizona justice system never managed to execute Debbie. Nevertheless, it robbed her of much of her life. Debbie, born in Berlin, was in solitary confinement for 22 years. She was treated like a monster, locked up in the labyrinth of the US justice system, a system in which the more you know about it, the less you understand.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world. Almost 3,000 people are currently on death row, waiting to be poisoned, gassed or hanged, or executed in the electric chair or by a firing squad.
Statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center show that 151 people have been released from death row and acquitted since 1973. Debbie's case shows how easily the innocent can end up in prison and on death row.
It is Monday, March 23, in room 7 of the Superior Court of Maricopa County. It's a sunny day, with the mountains visible across the desert.
The court clock with its red, illuminated numbers, ticks numbers in front of Debbie. These are the last few seconds of her case, the last seconds of an American nightmare.
She is sitting between her attorneys, looking nervous. Debbie is wearing a blue-and-black blouse and a necklace with a silver heart pendant. The inscription on the pendant reads: "Hear my soul speak."
The judge, looking into the courtroom, announces that she has received a letter from the Supreme Court of Arizona instructing her to dismiss the case. It takes her 26 seconds to utter these all-important instructions -- 26 seconds after 22 years on death row.
Debbie is taken into an adjacent room. Her parole officer goes into the room, holding a bag and a pair of scissors. He emerges 10 minutes later, having taken off Debbie's electronic ankle monitor and placed it in a bag.
Photographers and cameramen are waiting outside the court. A guard offers to protect Debbie from them, pointing to another exit, but she declines.
She uses the same approach she used in all those years in which many believed she was a child killer, the years in which her fellow inmates berated her whenever she was led through the corridors with shackles on her feet. "I just think to myself that there's no one there and I keep going straight ahead," she says.
Today Debbie lives in Phoenix, in a house owned by a friend from Berlin. He first read about her case in SPIEGEL in 1998, and he has supported her ever since.
Two columns support the roof over the front door, next to which is a doorbell without a nameplate. Debbie's dog Angel, a blonde Labrador crossbreed, barks when the doorbell rings.
There's fruit on the kitchen counter -- pineapple, blueberries and melon. At best, the only fruit she got in prison was the occasional apple or orange.
Sitting in the armchair in the middle of her living room, Debbie describes what it was like to wait for freedom for more than two decades. A life with nothing to look forward to, thoughts of execution and what might be the last image a person sees before they die.
She talks about what it feels like to return to a world that has seen so much change. Debbie speaks calmly as she relates her carefully organized thoughts and memories.
Her parents met in Berlin, where her father was stationed with the US military. When he was transferred back to the United States about a year after she was born, Debbie and her mother Renate came along. But the marriage steadily deteriorated, and in March 1983 Renate moved back to Germany alone.
Debbie's younger sister Sandy remained with their father, who was now working as a guard at a prison in Florence, not far from Phoenix. Debbie went to college in Phoenix, where she shared an apartment with a female friend. "We were 19, our parents were far away and we were crazy about boys."
On a Friday evening in April 1983, she went to a biker bar, where she met Mark Milke, a floor installer whose parents were from Hamburg. He was athletic and well groomed. "I was lovesick," says Debbie. She soon noticed that Mark drank and smoked pot a lot. "But I thought I could change him," she says.
They were married in December 1984, and Christopher was born the following October. That was when Mark went to jail for the first time, after being convicted of drunk driving without a driver's license.
One day, Debbie found a bag in the garage. It contained needles, a white powder and a bent spoon. She angrily confronted Mark, and a short time later she found him in the bath, looking half-dead, with a needle in his arm.
At some point, Mark shouted at her: Take your kid and get out of here! He pushed Christopher out the front door, and the little boy wet his pants. Debbie took the child's hand, ran down the street and hid behind some garbage cans. As she recounts the story, the little boy said: "Mommy, can you buy me some cowboy boots? That way I can kick Daddy the next time he's so mean."
Debbie, at her wit's end, could only think of one person to turn to for help: Jim Styers, a neighborhood acquaintance. He was friendly and had a two-year-old daughter. She called him from a gas station and Styers told her she could stay in one of the rooms in his house.
She didn't know very much about him. He was a Vietnam veteran and lived on welfare -- and was haunted by the ghosts of the women and children he had killed in Vietnam.
He took care of Christopher while Debbie looked for an apartment. She only felt uncomfortable around Styers' best friend, Roger Scott, a heavy drinker.
On Dec. 2, 1989, Styers asked Debbie if he could borrow her white Toyota and drive it to a shopping center. Christopher wanted to come along, so he got up and put on his new cowboy boots. "See you later, alligator," Debbie said. "After awhile, crocodile," the four-year-old boy replied. It was a standard goodbye ritual. And then they left, the veteran and the child.
"Jim called early in the afternoon. He wanted to know if I had heard anything from Chris. He said that he had lost the boy. I shouted: Jim, you have to find him. Jim! He said that he was already talking to a security guard.
My head was full of grim thoughts. I thought of child molesters. I panicked and called my father. He told me to calm down and call the police. So I called the police.
Police officers showed up in the next few hours. I hoped that Chris, who knew our number, would call soon. I was starting to go crazy."
Debbie drove to her father's house in Florence that night. The police officers had promised to watch the phone. She took a pill and fell into a deep sleep. When she woke up the sheriff was there. He told her that the Phoenix police wanted to speak to her.
"He took me to the sick room at the police station in Florence. Then a big, fat man dressed in civilian clothing came into the room. He sat on a chair and rolled the chair around the table and towards me, until his face was only a few centimeters away from mine. I was sitting with my back against the wall. He put his hands on my knees and said that Christopher was dead, that they had found his body in the desert, and that I was under arrest. All I could do was shout: What? What? The man asked me if I wanted the conversation to be recorded. I said: 'No, I need a lawyer.'
Then he took me to Phoenix in a car. As I stared out into the night, I couldn't believe what was happening. I thought that he might be taking me home now, but we drove to the police station in Phoenix instead. There, he put me in handcuffs and took me to a jail. I don't remember much about the days I spent there, but a young public defender turned up soon. I asked him: Is it true that my boy is dead? He looked at me with a stunned look on his face. 'How is it possible that you don't know?' he asked. 'You confessed to arranging the murder.'"
Debbie's attorney was a typical, inexperienced public defender. He had never been involved in a murder case. In fact, he had only worked on a handful of criminal proceedings. While he sat with her, a grand jury appointed by the district attorney voted to charge Debbie with murder.
She didn't know what had happened. A detective named Armando Saldate had questioned Styers and Scott. He was a specialist in interrogation with a reputation for being able to make people confess. He was the "big, fat man" Debbie had described.
Saldate took Styers to task, but he remained silent. Scott, on the other hand, was softer. Saldate asked questions and kept pressing him until he began to talk. The only problem was that he was telling several different versions of his story.
Yes, Christopher was dead, Scott said. He also knew where the boy was, he added. He claimed that Styers had shot the boy and that he himself had only driven the car. He said Styers couldn't stand the boy, and that there had also been a life insurance policy on Christopher worth over $5,000.
Scott directed the police officers northward. Along the way, he told a different story, saying that Styers hadn't intended to kill the boy, but that Debbie had hired him to do it. He didn't reveal why.
The officers discovered Christopher's body in a dry riverbed north of Happy Valley Road. Someone had fired three bullets into the back of his head.
The same evening after Scott's interrogation, Saldate took a helicopter to Florence, where Debbie was being kept in the sick room at the station. The crime came at a convenient time for Saldate, who was eager for a promotion and wanted to show what he could do.
Saldate first typed his report three days later, six-and-a-half single-spaced pages, containing the alleged confession of Debbie Milke. He wrote that she had cried and shouted during the interrogation, but that "no tears were visible," that he said he "would not tolerate any lies." According to the report, she then said, "Look, I just didn't want him to grow up like his father," and, "I just wanted God to take care of him." Saldate claimed in his report that Debbie "spoke to her friend Jim about helping her figure out a way for her child Chris to die." And when Jim and her son left, "She knew that they were going to do it today." The report also alleges Debbie told her son on the day of his death that "God was coming down and going to take him and that he was going to be going to heaven."
The problem with the transcript was that Saldate had not brought a witness to the interrogation. He also didn't record the sessions, and he threw away his notes, he later claimed.
Debbie says that he had twisted her words around and invented a lot of things. It was quite possible that she had said that she didn't want Christopher to turn out like his father, but was that a reason to ask Jim to kill her child? That's nonsense, she says. Never.
Jim Styers never testified against Debbie. And Roger Scott never repeated his accusations. Police found the murder weapon, a pistol, in a closet in Scott's home.
Debbie spent the remaining time until her trial in the prison's psychiatric ward, tormented by depression and panic attacks. She could only remember that Christmas decorations were put up at some point, she says. At most, she spoke with her attorney and her psychiatrist. He taught her how to breathe when she was hyperventilating during an anxiety attack.
Debbie's trial began on the morning of Sept. 12, 1990. She was taken in handcuffs and shackles to a room at the Maricopa County Superior Court. Photographs taken at the time depict a young, 26-year-old woman with a blank expression and her blue eyes wide open.
"I felt like I was looking at everything through a curtain. They had given me a sedative, which made me less aware of my surroundings, although I wasn't afraid of the trial at all. On the contrary, I was looking forward to it, because I was sure that everything would finally turn out to be a huge mistake. I was so incredibly naïve."
Judge Cheryl Hendrix, a woman with a stern look on her face, presided over the trial. She had recognized Saldate's report as a confession and as evidence, even though Debbie had never signed it and continued to dispute its contents. Archival images show the police officer wearing a suit and tie, and facing a microphone. "She decided it would be best for Christopher to die," he said. When Debbie thinks about that day, she closes her eyes.
"I had to be quiet. But everything in my head was screaming: Liar, you're a goddamned liar. He was so overbearing, so unbelievably arrogant. And he was allowed to describe in detail all the things I had supposedly confessed to him.
But the district attorney drove me into a corner. I felt as if I were in Russia, not America. I was only allowed to answer questions with yes or no, and I couldn't explain anything. And yet there were so many things that needed explanation. The fact that Jim was always good to Christopher, and that I had no reason to distrust him. That I didn't know that Roger Scott would join them on that day. That I wasn't the one who had bought that life insurance policy, but my employer, and that it was a routine thing. Everything seemed so unreal to me. My soul couldn't bear it anymore."
Debbie's mother Renate didn't come to the trial. She said later that she had been completely taken aback by her daughter's supposed confession.
Debbie's father Sam and her sister Sandy, however, did testify in the trial. Her father said that Debbie had always been selfish and should never have been allowed to become a mother. Her sister claimed that Debbie had abused Christopher, burning him with a hot baking sheet to discipline him.
"I stared at Sandy the whole time and wondered: What have I done to you to make you hate me so much? She was always jealous of me. She probably enjoyed getting even with me. I don't know. But when it came to my father, I thought: Why are you saying these things? You know me! As a soldier, he probably couldn't imagine that a police officer would lie.
But the really bad thing was that the judge overruled every objection from my attorney. She also denied all requests to have me take a lie detector test, as well as to question my friends and Chris's pediatrician. Shortly before his death, he had spent four weeks in a hospital because of his thyroid. The doctor had affirmed that he was touched by how much I had cared for Chris, and that there were no signs whatsoever of abuse. The judge was also uninterested in the prison psychiatrist's assessment. No wonder, because he thought I was innocent."
The trial ended after only a few weeks, on Oct. 12. Eyewitnesses say that a boy played a 15-minute violin solo in the courtroom, after the judge invited him in an effort to improve the mood.
The jury of 12 men and woman found Debbie guilty of having instigated Styers and Scott to murder Christopher. On Jan. 18, 1991, Judge Hendrix handed down the sentence.
"I still remember how my attorney bent over to me and tried to calm me down: 'They definitely won't sentence you to death, Debbie.' But he told me to remain calm if I heard the phrase 'life in prison.' He said this would be just a formality and that he would definitely get me out sooner.
And then the judge read the verdict. All I heard was: death. I felt paralyzed. There was nothing there, no emotion at all."
It wasn't until 22 years later, in March 2013, that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shot down the verdict and Saldate's report: "Without Saldate's testimony, the prosecution had no case against Debbie, as there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime and neither of her supposed co-conspirators -- Styers and Scott -- would testify against her. ... The only evidence linking Debbie to the murder of her son is the word of Detective Armando Saldate, Jr. -- a police officer with a long history of misconduct that includes lying under oath."
The appellate court judges listed many cases prior to Debbie's trial in which Saldate had lied, used unorthodox methods to obtain confessions, broken the law and framed suspects. In one case, Saldate obtained a confession from a man who was in the hospital with a fractured skull and couldn't even remember his own name.
In another, he interrogated a suspect who was on artificial respiration, was being given intravenous infusions and repeatedly lost consciousness. Saldate shook the seriously injured man in order to get him to talk.
The appellate judges were horrified by Saldate's methods and the fact that his testimony had sent Debbie to death row. "No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone's life or liberty," chief judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the court. And then they really let loose: "The Phoenix Police Department and Saldate's supervisors there should be ashamed of having given free rein to a lawless cop to misbehave again and again, undermining the integrity of the system of justice they were sworn to uphold."
The prosecutors were already familiar with Saldate's list of sins in 1990, but they concealed it from the jury. Otherwise, they would have lost their case against Debbie.
Debbie was placed in solitary confinement on the night after her death sentence was pronounced. She remembered that the lack of contact with other people almost drove her crazy.
Three weeks later, she was transferred to death row in Perryville. Ba-by-kil-ler, Ba-by-kil-ler.
"I was allowed to spend one hour in the yard three times a week. They would put me in a cage with about four square meters (40 square feet) of space. I hated it. I felt like an animal in the zoo. But at least I could look up at the sky, watch the planes go by and imagine who was sitting in them and flying in them. I always tried to sense the world outside the walls and fences."
During her first year in Perryville, she was ostracized by her fellow inmates.
"Maybe they were afraid of me, because they thought: She must be dangerous, since she got the death penalty. A few guards also felt similarly about me. I could sense their tension when they opened my door. First, they would always talk into their walkie-talkies and say: 'Opening Milke's door.' But over time they realized that I was completely harmless."
Three-quarters of a year after her arrival in Perryville, Debbie tried to contact her mother for the first time. She wrote her a 32-page letter, dated Oct. 18, 1991. She sent it to her grandparents in Berlin, whose address she knew by heart.
She spoke German as a child, but she had forgotten almost everything. She wrote on the envelope, in poor German, "Grandma and Grandpa, it's not true. For my mother and Alex! Please Grandma! Please!" Alex was her stepfather.
"A short time earlier, the mother of my ex-husband died. It almost broke my heart to know that she had gone to her grave believing that I had had someone kill Chris. I didn't want the same thing to happen to my mother. That's why I wrote to her to explain what had really happened. Soon afterwards, I received a letter from her. She kept apologizing, because she had thought that I didn't want to see her. She also wrote that she would help me. That gave me a lot of strength."
As an inmate on death row, Debbie was not permitted to work. Nevertheless, she got up every morning at five, made her bed, switched on her little desk lamp and wrote.
"I stole every moment of silence. The women below me were still asleep that early in the morning. The silence allowed me to put my thoughts into words. I wrote back to my mother, my friends and strangers who had heard about my case. And I also made notes about things I wanted to ask my attorney during his next visit."
At 10 o'clock, she set aside the letters she had finished writing. Then she turned on the TV and watched "The Young and the Restless," a soap opera in which two families struggle for power and recognition. They became ersatz families for Debbie.
Debbie would read after lunch, when most of the other inmates napped. She read self-help books about the power of the imagination, Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and "Man's Search for Meaning," by the Jewish psychologist Viktor Frankl, who describes how he survived life in a concentration camp. Her mother and friends were allowed to send her books.
"I wanted to understand what enables people to persevere, because I was often amazed that I didn't go crazy. I wanted to know where this strength comes from. At some point, I realized that we don't know what we can actually endure until the moment when we have to do it."
In 1994, Debbie took a paralegal course from a correspondence school. For $30 a month, she received study materials by mail. The money was deducted from her prison account, which consisted of money deposited by her mother and friends.
"I wanted to gain a better understanding of what the lawyers were talking about, because I had only one objective: to get out. I wanted to find out who had killed Chris. And I wanted to expose Saldate, because I realized that I couldn't have been the only one he had done that to."
To drown out the noise during the day, Debbie would sit on her bed and spend hours solving crossword puzzles and Sudokus. Or she would listen to music: meditation music, Metallica and Madonna. She used to do squats and sit-ups to her music.
At 6:30 every evening, the window in her cell door opened and a tray was pushed through. Her mail would be placed next to her dinner. It was the highlight of the day.
"Then I watched TV again. To find out what was in style at the time, I would occasionally switch on the Home Shopping channel. But I also watched a lot of documentaries about other countries. About circumcision rituals in Africa or about poverty in India. I remember this one report about an Indian family. They lived in a tiny, two-room apartment. They had nothing, and their four children couldn't get enough to eat. That's when I looked around and thought to myself: It isn't really all that bad here. I have a roof over my head and a bed, and I get food to eat. From then on, I treated my cell as a room.
Aside from my daily routines, that too became a survival strategy for me: To see the good in all the bad things and accept my situation."
Debbie went to bed at 8 p.m. every night. In the summer, when temperatures climb to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Phoenix, she usually slept on the floor.
Afraid that her clothing would be stolen, Debbie washed it herself, including towels. She would make face peelings with headache tablets from the prison shop and cut her hair with nail clippers.
"But what I missed most of all was a real toothbrush."
Debbie pulls out two prison toothbrushes, which are about the size of cigarettes.
"They were finished after you'd brushed your teeth twice, but they only gave you a new one once a week. We were also not allowed to use dental floss, because it was supposedly dangerous, although we were allowed to use shoelaces. As a result, my mouth was full of bacteria after all those years, and my teeth started to come loose."
She reaches into her mouth and pulls out a pair of braces. Her real teeth haven't straightened out completely yet.
Debbie derived strength from the conviction that she would be released one day. But then, shortly after Christmas 1997, she received a letter. It contained her execution date: Jan. 29, 1998.
"All of our appeals in Arizona had failed, and we hadn't received confirmation that our appeal at the federal level had been received yet. As a result, I felt that this execution date was a formality. But then it dragged on and on. And I had to go through that dry run. I called my lawyer and asked him when we could expect the confirmation from the federal court. He assured me that everything was going according to plan. And, in fact, the execution date was cancelled the next day. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that he really wasn't paying much attention to my case anymore.
Then I sat down and wrote to my mother, asking her to contact Mike Kimerer. I had read about him in the Arizona Republic, the local paper, which I received every evening. He had already won some of the most challenging cases. I needed him."
Mike Kimerer is sitting at a long mahogany table in his law firm. He has alert eyes and is a powerful man, even at 74. Kimerer has an outstanding reputation as a criminal defender in the United States. He helped win the Miranda case in 1966, involving kidnapper and rapist Ernesto Miranda. Since then, police officers have been required to read anyone they arrest their so-called Miranda Rights: the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present. Debbie's case, says Kimerer, will have an equally strong impact on the American justice system.
Sitting next to him at the table is Lori Voepel, a member of Debbie's legal team. She was still in law school when Debbie was sentenced. "At the time, we all thought she was a monster. So did I. But now that I'm familiar with the files, I know what a horrible abuse of justice we're dealing with here," she says.
Voepel is an appeals specialist. She takes two pieces of paper and draws curved lines on the paper to represent the path through the labyrinth in which Debbie was trapped. Voepel draws lines from the original court in Phoenix to the appeals court in the State of Arizona, then to the Arizona Supreme Court, then back to the original court and back to the Supreme Court again. Then she draws a parallel line with her pen, to indicate that the case is now being heard in a federal court. Voepel needs a second piece of paper to continue drawing the line, this time to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, familiar to hardly anyone outside the United States, even though this appeals court is one of the country's highest courts.
After Kimerer and Voepel took over the case from Debbie's previous attorney, they visited her in prison. "She was in a dangerous situation," says Voepel. "They had driven her into a corner, like an animal. We brought her back on track, but the most important thing was that she participated. Some death row inmates simply give up at some point and let themselves go over a cliff. Not Debbie."
In a 2001 letter, Debbie told her mother about what she called the "men in black". They searched Debbie's cell every three months, dressed entirely in black, wearing combat boots and facemasks with eye slits. "I really live in a hell, and no one really has any idea what that's like," Debbie wrote.
"It was because of them that I didn't have a photo of Chris in my cell. I was afraid that one of them would tear it up. And that he'd say: Oops, that was an accident.
But there were nice guards, too. I think some of them felt that I was innocent. It usually materialized when they asked me about my website, which my mother had set up for me. 'Debbie, I heard you have a website.' Then I'd take a long look at them and ask: So what did you do on my website? And then they'd smile at me or give me a wink. The nice ones also allowed me to roll my sock into a double layer for protection before they put on the leg irons. They had such sharp edges that pressed into your skin."
Debbie points to one of her ankles, which is surrounded by scars, as if she had been bitten by a dog.
"I call them my battle scars."
Debbie's hair turned gray after 10 years in Perryville. She was only 36 at the time. But the toughest years were yet to come.
"I had always hoped to have a family again. But nothing was moving. I suffered from severe depression. Sometimes I would just sit at my little window for weeks, watching them build a highway on-ramp in the distance, watching the construction vehicles drive back and forth. I would often try to imagine what Chris would look like. What would have interested him. Would he have joined the army?
It took me a long time to accept that I would never be a mother again. In the end, it was a certain way of looking at things that helped me. At my age, I thought, many people are already in their second marriage and still aren't happy. They live their lives in the rat race and they don't have any time to think about the meaning of life. That time was given to me as a gift. I actually tried to see my lack of freedom as a gift, as a form of freedom."
Interactions with her fellow inmates also helped her, especially with a woman named Wendy. She lived in the cell next to Debbie's during her last nine years in Perryville. Wendy beat her cancer-stricken husband to death with a barstool, for which she was sentenced to death.
"Our cells shared an evaporative cooler. If we laid down on the floor, we could have conversations through the air vents. We talked a lot about philosophy. During the time when I was learning Spanish, I always said to her at around seven: Okay, I have to go to Mexico now. That was when I always watched a telenovela."
Toward the end of her incarceration, Debbie was allowed to have visitors for four hours every Monday. It was usually an elderly couple that came to visit, friends of her mother. Or her mother would visit, when she was in Phoenix.
"Those were brief hours of happiness. I always asked her to tell me about what it was like outside, totally ordinary things. Unfortunately, I was never allowed to hug her. There was always a pane of glass between us. And it always broke my heart to see her go. But then I would tell myself: It's okay, Debbie. You can't get out, but one day you will. I almost derived strength from that sadness. I knew I would never have Chris back. But if I persevered, at least I would be able to embrace my mother again one day. It became all the more important to me when she got so sick."
Meanwhile, Kimerer and Voepel were fighting their way through the courts, a process Kimerer calls "an uphill battle." They fought for 12 years, until March 14, 2013, when the federal appeals court overturned all previous verdicts in the Milke case, in a rebuke to the entire justice system.
The number of executions and new death sentences increased in the 1980s and 90s, the period in which Debbie was sentenced. Conservatives dominated the courts at the time, says Kimerer.
"Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way," he says, "and Debbie's case is part of the reason." With its ruling on Debbie Milke, the Ninth Circuit Court is forcing America's prosecutors to present all evidence that could exonerate a defendant. Its decisions often set a precedent nationwide. "The court switched on the light," says Voepel.
"After the Ninth Circuit Court's ruling in March, it was clear that I would be released. I said to Mike and Lori, my attorneys: Get me out of her. Please. Now. I don't care how. They can put me under house arrest, and I can wear an ankle bracelet, but I have to get out of here.
My mother had cancer. I knew she was going to die soon. And I wanted to hug her one last time. To do that, I had to waive my right to a speedy trial, and I knew it. But I didn't care."
But it still took much too long until I was released. One morning in September, I received a visit in prison from Ronda, who worked on my defense team. I didn't know what she wanted -- at least until she showed me my release papers in the visitors' room. I was incredibly excited, and I thought I was dreaming. We had fought for so long."
Debbie was released on Sept. 6, 2013, on $250,000 bail and under strict conditions. She was carrying a paper bag filled with books and letters. A guard said: "Here you go. Good luck," and then there she was, standing outside.
"It all felt surreal. Mike and Lori were there. They took videos of me with their phones. I wasn't afraid, but it was overwhelming. Everything was so gigantic, the trees, the houses. We drove into the cities, and I looked at the cars outside the window. It was loud, and there were people everywhere, many homeless. Everything seemed so strange. Mike had a little screen in his car, and I had no idea what it was for. And he could talk to anyone on the phone without holding the phone up to his ear. How did that work?
I felt like a stranger in my hometown. I only recognized a few street corners. It was as if I had been on another planet for a long time. We drove straight to Lori's office. Then the officer came to put on my ankle bracelet. Wearing it was one of the conditions I had been given. I was looking forward to it, because I saw the thing as a part of my freedom. The officer was stunned. He said I was the first person for whom an ankle bracelet signified freedom.
Then we went to see the friends of my mother who had always helped me so much. There were balloons in the air, and cake and roses. I have a photo that shows me smelling a rose. What a scent."
The friend from Berlin took Debbie to his house that evening. She couldn't stand closed doors and still had no sense of what it was like to be outside, no sense of relative size, of distances and of space. In her years between prison walls and bars, the world had become too big for her.
"I couldn't deal with it. It was overwhelming."
She closed all of her blinds. Only after a few days did she carefully open one of them, the one in front of the kitchen window.
"I lie awake at night and delight in the ticking of the clock in the bedroom, and in the silence. There was nothing but noise, noise and more noise where I had come from. I also enjoyed the darkness, because the lights are always on in prison."
Shortly after Debbie's release, her mother Renate flew to Phoenix. The mother and daughter hadn't touched each other in 25 years.
"We screamed and cried. It was a strange feeling to hug people and be hugged. I wasn't familiar with it anymore. But I had told myself: Debbie, whatever's out there, absorb it and let it happen. Go with the flow."
She flips open the laptop, which she now knows how to use, to show us photos from her mother's last visit. Photos of her planting cacti in the garden behind the house, and having to brace herself because the cancer had already weakened her body. And her mother sleeping with Angel next to her, with one of the dog's paws resting on her shoulder.
Her mother had to return to Germany in March 2014.
"I still remember the day she left, because she had to go back to chemo. It was March 16. We both knew it was the last time we would see each other. That's because I couldn't leave the country. It was one of the terms of my release. When I closed the door behind her, I broke down."
Renate Janka died in August 2014. On Skype, Debbie saw her mother becoming weaker and weaker.
"She was sitting on the sofa the last time we had a conversation. She had wrapped a scarf around her head. Reinhard, her life partner, called out from the other room: Debbie, you have to be firm with your mother. She doesn't want to eat. She just smiled and shrugged her shoulders. And I said to her: Mom, it's okay if you don't want to eat.
She was admitted to the hospital a short time later. And one morning, when I called Reinhard on Sykpe, he started crying. I knew that it was over."
Debbie starts to cry.
"I miss her terribly."
The long years in prison have strained Debbie's psyche and her body. She lost the sensation in her fingers in Perryville. It was carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition involving pinched nerves, and she had to have surgery. The doctor said that it might have been caused by her writing in prison. She wasn't allowed to use ballpoint pens, just the thin refills, because a ballpoint pen could be used as a weapon.
Debbie has now sued the State of Arizona for damages. Is she angry about all the years that stolen from her?
"What good would it do to be angry? Sure, there are so many things I could be furious about. But what would that change? Nothing. I probably won't live to be 100. I can't waste the rest of my life being angry. It's more difficult for me to forgive -- my sister and, most of all, Jim and Roger. I do believe that Roger shot Christopher to death. Just because. The way other people torture animals. He was a cruel, sick person."
Roger Scott was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1991, and Jim Styers in 1990. Both men have appealed their verdicts, but have been unsuccessful so far. They are still on death row in the State of Arizona.
There is no grave that Debbie can visit to mourn her son. Christopher was cremated, and the urn with his ashes was given to his father.
"I don't know what Mark did with it. I'm not in touch with him. But somehow I know that he's taking care of it. I know that he put up a cross in the desert where Chris died. But I'll never go there. I couldn't bear it.
I have to look forward and make plans. I want to take a road trip and visit friends in Louisiana, Ohio and Virginia. I just want to stand there and say: Hey, I was just in the neighborhood."
"And I want to apply for a passport, because I want to be in Germany in August. I still have family there, on my mother's side. I want to live there."
It is now evening. Debbie steps out onto the terrace and looks up at the sky. She is free. She is no longer in a cage and she no longer wears an ankle bracelet. There is a light breeze. The sound of two wind chimes can be heard. Debbie chose them carefully. One is for the voice of her mother and the other is for the voice of her son.
"I feel close to them when they chime."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles