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Monday, March 7, 2011

My Swiss Debut

About 20 years ago I was in the courtroom when a woman took the stand and tried to convince a jury she was not guilty of the crime for which she was on trial. I remember Debra Milke's big eyes as she looked earnestly at the lawyers questioning her on the stand. Debra was a young woman then, with softly feathered brown hair. It was atrocious to think this slim girl would have told her 4 year old son he was going to see Santa at the mall when she was really intending for her two accomplices to detour into the desert and shoot him in the head.

4 year old Christopher was found curled up, exactly as if he wished for Mama to scoop him into her lap, gum clenched between his teeth, three bullets entered from the back of his skull.

Debra Milke did not convince the jury that she thought the two men were good babysitters, not her lackey assassins. She has been on death row all this time.

But questions have arisen about a 30 minute interval she spent with a police detective. Her latest appeal centers on what she said during that time and why it wasn't recorded.

She has many supporters, a large number of them Europeans, who believe she was railroaded and virtually framed by that detective. Today, March 7, a documentary about her is being screened in Geneva at the International Human Rights Film Festival. The documentary crew interviewed me for the film, so I guess my face will be 40 feet wide on a silver screen in Switzerland today.

The thing is, Mrs. Milke did not convince me that day, either. I still have a hard time believing that if she felt these men were so scary and unstable that she would also think it reasonable to let them babysit her pre-schooler. Her story does not add up to me.

So I don't expect to come off very good in the documentary. I wouldn't be surprised if the European audience sees me as a "barbaric" American.

But as an American, I also believe in innocent until proven guilty and very much in due process. I don't know why an important confession would be left unrecorded. As a reporter, I never use material I can't back up with a recording or other documentation.

Nevertheless, as an experienced crime reporter and now writer of true crime books, I also know it is the totality of facts that make up a case. Just because one error or omission is made, it does not negate the rest of the evidence. But if she has been wrongly convicted, her life has been one of the sorriest tragedies ever to come to womankind.

(left: an excellent shot of Mrs. Milke as I remember her)

I am certainly not an expert on the Milke case. I will be very interested to see how the courts sort this out.

All that I do know, really, is that Christopher went to see Santa, his little eyes lit up with the magic of reindeer, toys and candy. He ended up frightened, clenching his jaw, pulling himself tight into the fetal position. The two men who put bullets into his brain had very close ties to his mother, including sharing an apartment with her. There is no evidence she did not willingly leave him in their custody. There is no evidence they made any demands on her, ransom or otherwise, that would suggest they planned a kidnapping hostile to her own wishes.

And I also know that when I heard her tell what happened, I did not believe her.

An appellate judge called her story "rehearsed" and that certainly resonated with me.

Private Investigator Paul Huebl argues to me that people who live private, homey lives do have to rehearse court testimony and they will not come off like a polished speaker, professional actor or confident cosmopolitan. He may have a point. But I've been in many courtrooms and I've never seen that theory applied before. People who are frightened in court do not necessarily come off as liars. They usually come off as, well, frightened. Upset, nervous, anxious, diligent, worried--but not particularly as practiced liars.

What really happened between Debra Milke and the two men who killed her child will never, ever be known for certain except to her. It is an imperfect world and an imperfect justice system. So a European audience today will form their own opinions about Debra Milke and also about how one reporter, sitting on a hard court bench 20 years ago, perceived her.

For more on Debra Milke
Also, when the film is done at the festival, I think I'll be able to post a link here to view it on line. Second showing in Geneva on March 10.
If you are stopping by because you saw the film in Geneva this week, please click on the Facebook badge for the A Sudden Shot page with many more photos and info. Welcome!

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