A US woman who has spent more than two decades on death row has been released on bond after a judge ruled there was no direct evidence linking her to the death of her young son.
Debra Milke has not been exonerated, but a judge granted her a 250,000 dollar (£160,000) bond, meaning she could go free while preparing for a new trial in the case that made her one of Arizona's most reviled inmates. Milke walked out of the Maricopa County Sheriff's jail after supporters posted the bond.
Milke was convicted over the death of her four-year-old son, Christopher, who was allegedly killed for a 5,000 dollar (£3,200) insurance payout. His mother was accused of dressing the boy in his favourite outfit in December 1989 and telling him he was going to see Santa Claus at a shopping centre before handing him over to two men who took the child into the desert and shot him. She has been imprisoned since 1990.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Milke would probably be released on Friday but the exact timing remained unclear. A defence lawyer told the judge last week that Milke would be living in a Phoenix-area home purchased by supporters if she is freed. Prosecutors declined to comment on Milke's possible release and have not appealed against the bond order.
Milke, whose mother was a German who married a US air force military policeman in Berlin in the early 1960s, has drawn strong support from citizens of that nation and Switzerland, neither of which has the death penalty. Max Krucker, former president of the Swiss community where Milke's mother now lives, said Renate Janka was "ecstatic" about the possibility that her daughter would be released. She was planning to fly to Arizona as early as Saturday, Mr Krucker said. "She said, 'Now I can finally hold my daughter in my arms again'," he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home.
A dozen years ago, Mr Krucker was among the organisers of an effort in the Swiss town of Emmetten to support Milke, including by establishing a bank account that collected donations to aid in her defence. The account eventually netted about 200,000 Swiss francs (£136,000). It is now nearly drained, he said. Doubts about Milke's guilt and deep suspicion about the reliability of the detective's testimony helped motivate Swiss supporters to donate, as did opposition to the death penalty. Many also had concerns that Milke did not have access to the best defence because she had too little money, he said.
Now supporters are excited about the prospect of her release, Mr Krucker said, but also worried how she will manage to pay the bond. Ms Janka, who is suffering from cancer, was already forced to sell her home to help cover her daughter's legal bills, he said. "Over the years, we've struggled and suffered with her mom," Mr Krucker said. Supporters also run a website that requests donations through both German and Swiss accounts. Milke's ex-husband, whose name is Arizona Milke, believes his former wife is guilty and that supporters are fooled by the postings on the website. "It's fed by propagandised lies," he said.
Her chance at freedom comes six months after a federal appeals court overturned Milke's conviction, ruling that the prosecution should have disclosed information about the truthfulness of the now-retired detective who testified that Milke confessed.
Milke was a 25-year-old insurance company clerk when her son was killed. Now 49, she has maintained her innocence, saying she had nothing to do with the killing. The two men convicted in the case both remain on death row. Neither Roger Scott nor former Milke roommate James Styers testified at Milke's trial. Scott confessed during a police interrogation and led detectives to the boy's body.
Maricopa County prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty against Milke at her retrial, tentatively set for September 30, and her alleged confession is at the heart of the case against her. Police detective Armando Saldate Jr testified that she confessed to him in a closed interrogation room. But the confession was not recorded. At trial, Milke denied that she had confessed, but the jury believed the detective. Doubts about Saldate's honesty arose during Milke's appeals. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals concluded in March that prosecutors' failure to turn over evidence related to Mr Saldate's credibility deprived Milke's lawyers of the chance to question his truthfulness before jurors. The court noted four cases in which judges threw out confessions or indictments because Mr Saldate lied under oath and four instances in which cases were thrown out or confessions excluded because Mr Saldate violated the suspect's constitutional rights. He was also suspended for accepting sexual favours from a female motorist he stopped and then lying about the encounter, the court said.