Media Bias and 22 Years on Death Row

Debra MilkeI keep waiting to hear something about Debra Milke, the women who was wrongly convicted of having her son murdered 23 years ago. But I guess Maricopa County hasn’t decided if they are going to retry her yet. Regardless, The Daily Beast published an article a bit more than a month ago that showed a lot of what is wrong with the media’s coverage of our justice system, Death Row Debbie Milke Could Soon Be Free. The problem is not just the original reporting but this article itself.

Much of the article focuses on Phoenix journalist Paul Rubin. He reported on the trial at the time. And I find his whole approach to the case deeply troubling. He seems to see it more like theater than a criminal trial. For example, he said, “She was one of the worst witnesses I’ve ever seen.” He added that when the prosecutor handed Milke her son’s shoes for identification, “She just nodded.” Oh my God! That is telling.

The Daily Beast writer, Terry Greene Sterling, added to this impression by noting that the misogynistic lying copy, Armando Saldate “had been a police officer for 21 years, and had testified frequently in court.” So you see: it isn’t that an injustice was done; this is just the kind of thing that happens to bad performers. If only Milke had learned her trade by testifying at trials for lesser crimes, maybe she could have competed with such a polished pro as Saldate.

The original journalist continues to wrong Milke (and Sterling willingly obliges). He noted that 22 years ago, Milke seemed “kinda flirty” during interviews. I don’t even know what that means, but Rubin clearly thought it meant she was guilty. Now, I don’t know what Rubin’s or any other reporter’s stories looked like. But I’m sure they were a lot heavier on innuendo about Milke and a lot lighter on Armondo Saldate’s background. And that was kind of important given that the entire reason that Milke is currently on death row is his testimony that Milke confessed to him.

I don’t doubt that both reporters consider themselves as objective. But this is a what passes as objective reporting from Sterling:

In overturning Milke’s conviction, the appellate court didn’t find her innocent. “Milke may well be guilty, even if Saldate made up her confession out of whole cloth,” Kozinski wrote. “After all, it’s hard to understand what reason Styers and Scott would have had for killing a four-year-old boy. Then again, what reason would they have to protect her if they knew she was guilty?”

I have two problems with this. First, that first sentence is almost panicked, “No one said Milke’s innocent!” That seems highly defensive as though the Arizona journalists are a little tender about that point. Could it be that their “objective” coverage at the time was anything but? Second, I don’t find the lack of motive from Styers and Scott hard to understand at all. The prosecution never looked for a motive because they had already decided that they knew. This statement by the court shouldn’t just be left hanging there with no context. Regardless, I don’t see any reason why the guys didn’t roll over on her, but I can well imagine there might have been some.

When you read me, you know where I’m coming from. I know that cops perjurer themselves all the time. I know that they fabricate evidence. I know that they make snap judgments about cases and then disregard contradictory evidence. That doesn’t make me an idiot, but I have a perspective. The problem is that Rubin and Sterling have a perspective too. They just want you to think that they don’t. (In fairness, they probably think they don’t too.)

In Rubin’s case, this is more forgivable. But Sterling wrote an article that spent much time discussing whether Milke was guilty when that is not what this story is now about. The question is whether she should have been convicted in the first place. The evidence is overwhelming that she should not have been. And maybe if the justice system weren’t so screwed up that the prosecution went to trial with a single piece of evidence, they might have searched for more and found it. But they didn’t. The question is quite simply, “Was justice done?” And no amount of commentary about court decorum and “flirty” behavior will change that. Justice was not done and that woman should be set free.


The article ends with a quote from Rubin regarding seeing Milke at a recent hearing, “She was a hunched-over white haired woman. I was shocked.” Yeah. That’s what 22 years on death row can do to a person. It isn’t about the fact that she was a bad witness, asshole! At least it isn’t supposed to be.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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