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High court won't hear appeal of Az boy's murderer

Defense says judge, not jury, decided death penalty

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to consider the appeal of a Phoenix man sentenced to death for the murder of a 4–year–old boy more than 20 years ago.

The court, without comment Monday, refused to hear arguments from James Lynn Styers’ attorneys that state courts improperly let a judge instead of a jury decide the death penalty in his case.

The decision let stand an Arizona Supreme Court ruling from July that upheld the death sentence for Styers in the 1989 killing of 4–year–old Christopher Milke, who was shot three times in the back of the head and left in a wash.

Calls to Styers’ attorneys and to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office seeking comment were not returned.

Styers, now 64, and his young daughter were sharing a Phoenix apartment with Christopher and his mother, Debra Milke, in 1989 when the boy was killed.

According to court documents, Milke had told Styers she wanted Christopher dead because she did not want the boy ending up like his father. There was also a $5,000 life insurance policy on the boy at the time.

On Dec. 2, 1989, Styers told Christopher that he would take the boy to see Santa at the Metrocenter Mall. The two of them went to pick up Styers’ longtime friend, Roger Scott, and the three went to two drug stores and then out to lunch in the early afternoon, according to court records.

After lunch, Styers and Scott told Christopher they were going to go to the desert to look for snakes. Instead, Styers shot Christopher in the back of the head three times, and left his body in a wash near the corner of 99th Avenue and Jomax Road.

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Styers later filed a missing child report, saying he lost the boy while in Sears at the mall. But his story began to change under questioning by investigators.

Police arrested Styers the next day.

Scott led police to the wash where they found Christopher’s body, along with some shell casings similar to bullets found in Styers’ possession. Police also found a pair of black tennis shoes in the Sears parking lot that had a tread pattern similar to footprints found by Christopher’s body.

Styers, Scott and Milke were all charged and tried separately.

Styers was convicted in 1990 of first-degree murder, conspiring with Milke and Scott to commit the murder, child abuse and kidnapping. The child abuse charge was later overturned on appeal.

At sentencing, the trial court found three aggravating factors: Styers was an adult and the victim was under age 15, the murder was committed for financial gain and it was committed in an “especially heinous and depraved” manner. The court found no mitigating factors, and Styers was sentenced to death.

In one of his many appeals, the financial gain factor was tossed out, but the courts reaffirmed the death sentence based on the other factors in the case.

Styers’ latest appeal – his second attempt at a Supreme Court hearing – was filed in September. In it, his attorneys argued that Styers’ deserved a new sentencing hearing before a jury, which could consider mitigating factors that included a lack of criminal history before the murder and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered after his service in Vietnam.

But the state’s attorneys argued that the question of how to interpret state sentencing law was one for state courts and was properly decided in July by the Arizona Supreme Court.

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