PHOENIX (AP) -- On the final morning of 4-year-old Christopher Milke's life, his mother sent him off to visit Santa Claus at a Phoenix shopping mall in a triceratops sweatshirt and cowboy boots. Within hours, the little boy with the blond bangs and dark eyes was dead, shot three times in the head, his body curled in a dry desert wash on the fringe of the city.
Investigators quickly zeroed in on the mother, Debra Jean Milke, later condemned by her own family for treating Christopher with contempt. She was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.
But nearly 24 years after the crime, the case returns to a courtroom Monday -- with the verdict and the detective who cemented it effectively on trial.
A day after the killing, then-Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate Jr. sat down alone with Milke to question her. A half-hour later, the young mother was arrested for plotting Christopher's murder based on a detailed confession, one whose veracity she and her defenders have refuted ever since.
But Saldate, a 21-year veteran of the force, proved a most convincing witness. Listening to him, jurors looked past the fact that he had ignored a directive to record the interview, failed to secure a witness to observe it and destroyed his notes. And prosecutors did not share with them, or Milke's own lawyer, a personnel record that included previous allegations of misconduct.
It came down to his hard-boiled version of the truth over hers, based on words uttered in an interrogation room turned "into a black box, leaving no objectively verifiable proof as to what happened inside," an appellate court opined in a scathing March decision setting aside Milke's conviction.
"No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence," the court said.
This month, Milke was released on $250,000 bond as prosecutors prepare to bring her to trial once more. But holes in the case feed doubts that linger among both those certain of her guilt and those convinced of her innocence. Confronting those questions cannot bring Christopher back, but it is forcing reexamination of the system sworn to do him justice.
After all, the detective's testimony put Debbie Milke away. Now, will troubling questions about his police work and the way it was presented by prosecutors ensure her freedom?
When Milke came home to Phoenix in the fall of 1988, she was a 25-year-old single mom searching for a job and a place to live, and trying to keep her distance from an ex-husband she despised. The two were, nevertheless, bound together by a son.
Christopher was a rambunctious kid who liked cartoons and tearing around on a Big Wheel. In fading photos, the boy flashes a winning smile. But he also showed a hyperactive streak, throwing fits those close to Milke said got under her skin. In that way, he echoed his father, Mark, an alcoholic, back then, who served time for driving under the influence with a suspended license.
"He looked like my clone," recalls Christopher's father, who has since changed his name to Arizona Milke and remains convinced of his ex-wife's guilt. "Debbie often called him Mark by mistake, and he'd get this Kool-Aid grin on his face and say 'I'm not Mark. I'm Chris. Mark's my daddy.'"
After the couple split, Milke and Christopher stayed for a time in Colorado with family friend Dorothy Markwell, who remembers Milke as a "young mom trying to make it with her child."
"She wasn't a bad mom. She was a mom still learning," Markwell says, recalling how Milke read to Christopher each night and how she panicked when the boy wandered away and ended up at a neighbor's home.
But Markwell confirms her testimony at Milke's trial: "Yeah, she would say 'This kid looks so much like Mark I can't stand it!'" she says. "Does that mean she was wanting him murdered? No!"
Markwell heard little from Milke after she and Christopher left. But back in Phoenix, Milke found ready support. She frequently left Christopher with her sister, Sandy, her ex-husband's parents or her father, a former Air Force military policeman. Soon she found a secretarial job at an insurance agency.
And she met James Styers, a Vietnam veteran who sublet her and Chris a room in his apartment.
Then came the morning of Dec. 2, 1989. According to Milke, Christopher asked his mother if he could go with Styers to a shopping mall to see Santa Claus. On the way, Styers picked up a friend, Roger Scott.