Anatomy-coverMurder. Coercion. Prosecutorial Misconduct.

Anatomy of a Confession is the story of the 1990 murder trial of Debra Milke. Two men—James Styers, a family friend and single father of a two year-old daughter, and his friend, Roger Scott—murdered Debra’s four year-old son in the Arizona desert. One of them implicated the boy’s mother.

Even before Debra was questioned, the police hung a guilty tag on her. Debra Milke spent twenty-three years on death row for the murder of her four year-old son based solely on a confession she never gave.

This is also the story of Detective Armando Saldate, his history of coercing confessions and violating Miranda standards, and the role the Phoenix Police Department played in the cover-up and misconduct in its handling of the Milke investigation.

Finally, Anatomy of a Confession examines the prosecutor who presumably knew about Detective Saldate’s past, that the “confession” was probably bogus, but also knew that without it, he had no case against Debra.

Like the very best of true crime narratives, Anatomy of a Confession is a vivid and shocking reminder of what America’s vaunted presumption of innocence is all about and how terribly wrong things can go when the criminal justice system is abused by the very people meant to uphold it.

Reader Reviews

“Gary Stuart’s Anatomy of a Confession vividly describes how a ‘constitution be damned’ detective, a blindly zealous prosecutor, a grossly inexperienced defense attorney, and a presumptuous trial judge all converge to set in motion the introduction of a ‘confession’ that was neither appropriately witnessed nor recorded as required by police department policy and the criminal case law. Author Stuart’s telling of Debra Milke’s more than two decade journey through the American legal system expertly details how assumptions by the very players whose job it was to ensure a legally level playing field did just the opposite. By their ineptitude or callousness, an arguably innocent mother was found guilty of the cold blooded murder of her 4-year-old child. Anatomy of a Confession is a story that will enthrall not just law enforcement, lawyers and the judiciary, but particularly those who, as jurors, selflessly serve to make our criminal justice system truly work, the American citizenry.”
“I am very pleased with Gary’s book on Debra’s case. It sets out the facts accurately, and is a compelling read on how a rogue cop and an unscrupulous prosecutor not only stole a young girl’s life, but fought to have her executed based on the police officer’s belief he has the infinite wisdom to know who is guilty, and will do anything to support his belief and get a conviction.”
“A mother is sentenced to death after confessing to killing her four-year-old son, by having him shot in the back of the head in a Phoenix desert. But, did she confess? That’s at the heart of Gary Stuart’s real life drama about the trial and conviction of Debra Milke. He unravels how an Arizona cop worked the system and how a justice system failed. In this gripping read, Stuart researched trial transcripts, police reports and conducted many witness interviews. Although free, the question remains, is Debra Milke an innocent mother convicted based on a lying cop’s made-up confession or did she conspire with two men to lure her son to the desert and shoot him to death with a promise of a trip to see Santa? This is the true life tale of a woman who spent 25 years on death row while her case slowly wound its way through America’s flawed legal system.”
“Gary Stuart’s thorough and exhaustive work relates a story of dishonesty, misconduct, and judicial rubber-stamping causing an innocent person to be condemned to death row. A well written analysis which rivals Netflix’ hit series Making a Murderer, it recognizes the diligent post-conviction defense counsel who brought this gross miscarriage of justice to the attention of federal appellate judges who understood and recognized the factual, legal, and moral inadequacies of the case when others chose not to. No stone is left unturned in the author’s scrutiny of how and why this injustice occurred. Mr. Stuart’s analysis demonstrates that there are no winners in this story unless participants in the criminal justice system learn from it. A work well done.”
“Once again, Gary Stuart has demonstrated brilliance in his writing as well as his understanding of the criminal justice system in Anatomy of a Confession. However, the title is somewhat of a misnomer, because what Gary Stuart has provided is a comprehensive inside look at the entirety of a high profile capital murder case, from the crime itself, to the investigation, pretrial motions, trial, and the complicated appellate process.

The book is not about whether Debra Milke is guilty or innocent. Many, including myself, believe she is guilty of some participation in the murder of her child. However, what Gary so eloquently describes is how the justice system failed in not exposing police misconduct of the lead detective, and at best prosecutorial indifference or at worst prosecutorial misconduct. Debra Milke and every criminal defendant, whether guilty or not, deserves not only the presumption of innocence, but also a fair investigation and trial. The public and our justice system also deserve a prosecutor who is a minister of justice and not just someone whose goal is to convict, as well as judges who are fair and impartial and don’t just brush aside overreach and misconduct. No matter if Debra Milke is guilty or not, she did not receive a fair investigation and trial , and because of that, her case was ultimately dismissed. Ultimately, for the memory of young Christopher Milke, the only one in this sorry saga who we know was innocent, we will never know the whole truth.

As in his previous writing, Gary Stuart has contributed to the sentinel event review of where the justice system went wrong, and what some remedies are, such as the need to record all suspect statements and interrogations, as well as the obligation of a prosecutor to disclose prior misconduct of its police witnesses. Shining a light on a case gone bad can only help in improving the justice system.”

“Presumed innocent? What does it mean? We all ought to know what it means. After all, the presumption of innocence is central to the American criminal
justice system. The Debra Milke story, as carefully traced by Gary Stuart, is a disturbing window into what it means to be presumed guilty, a presumption that invaded every step of her case, beginning with the corrupt detective who claimed she confessed to murdering her child, to the prosecutor who manipulated the grand jury, to the trial court judge who apparently had no presumption in mind other than guilt, to a chain of state court and federal court judges who remained blind to any inkling of innocence, and even at the end to a County Attorney who to this day scoffs at the conclusion that our criminal justice system erred. This is also though a story about what it means to have a few determined, persistent people who
believed in the presumption of innocence, and were willing to endure the cost of a 25-year war to earn Debra Milke’s freedom.”
“An exhaustively researched, purposefully even-handed, and unsensationalized tome… An invaluable resource, indeed lesson, for all those who participate or aspire to participate in the criminal justice system, whether judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or law students … A means for the greater public to better appreciate and understand the inner-workings of the criminal justice process, where it can go wrong, and how, in some cases at least, the same process ultimately remedies that wrong.”
“In Anatomy of a Confession: The Debra Milke Case, Gary Stuart takes the reader through the long, hard legal battle Debra has somehow amazingly survived. As Debra’s appellate attorney for fourteen years throughout her federal capital habeas appeals and her subsequent Arizona state re-trial and appellate proceedings, I can attest to how truly complex and often very intense a lengthy legal fight for a person’s life can be. Gary thoroughly conveys the defense team’s difficult but ultimately rewarding journey with Debra in a way that will be understandable even to lay readers, but without oversimplifying the capital case and appellate process. What happened in Debra’s case should never happen to any American citizen, and I highly recommend Anatomy of a Confession to anyone who is interested in learning why her case went so wrong. Only together can we, as a collective, educated and concerned citizenry, help to prevent such travesties of justice in the future.”
“Gary Stuart has chronicled a riveting account of Debra Milke’s odyssey through a flawed criminal justice system that failed until the Ninth Circuit overturned her conviction. Milke spent over twenty-two years on death row based solely on the false testimony of a corrupt cop that said she confessed to conspiring to kill her four-year-old son. Stuart’s book is more than an exciting narrative of Milke’s case. His central character is the Fifth Amendment in action and how it protects the individual from government abuse. Even though I was one of Debra’s federal appellate lawyers and worked on her case for over thirteen years, Stuart’s case gave me a perspective of Debra’s case that I had not seen. Because we were in the trenches dealing with the “tree” we did not see the forest—Gary Stuart shows us the ‘forest.’”
“Gary Stuart’s Anatomy of a Confession is a fascinating, comprehensive and meticulous telling of the tragedy that led Debra Milke, an innocent woman, to be convicted of a horrific capital murder that she did not commit based on a confession that she never made, and spend more than two decades on Arizona’s death row as a result. But this story is about more than one person decades’ long wrongful capital conviction and incarceration – it is a systemic indictment of police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct and judicial arrogance in Arizona. It offers an object lesson for the rest of the nation of what can go wrong in our criminal justice system when the presumption of innocence is turned upside down and becomes a presumption of guilt, fiction is treated as fact, constitutional rights are trampled on and official misconduct is repeatedly overlooked if not encouraged. Gary Stuart’s excellent book is a case study of justice off the rails and a valuable and insightful resource for anyone who wishes to better understand or improve American criminal justice.”