How Davontae Sanford, wrongly imprisoned for murder, found justice

Davontae Sanford, a Detroit man who pleaded guilty to four murders he did not commit when he was 14 years old, was released from prison Wednesday after nine years in prison. 

Carlos Osorio/AP
Davontae Sanford sits in a Detroit courtroom, June 30, 2010. He was released from prison Wednesday after nine years in prison.

Davontae Sanford, a young Detroit man who pleaded guilty to the murders of four people when he was 14, was released from prison Wednesday, ending a years-long legal battle.

In an investigation, state police learned Detroit police had drawn a diagram of the scene of the killings they had attributed to Mr. Sanford.

The case has been in the spotlight for years, as hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the homicides one month after Sanford’s sentencing and said Sanford had no role. Mr. Smothers is currently serving 52 years in prison after pleading guilty to eight other killings in 2010.

Judge Brian Sullivan made the decision Tuesday after a request from Wanye County prosecutor Kym Worthy, who revisited the convictions after advocates at the University of Michigan, Northeastern University, and other pro bono lawyers filed a motion that caused the state police to re-investigate the case.

The night of the murders, Sanford, described by Michigan Radio as "a partially-blind, learning disabled kid who had a reputation at school for big talk and spinning stories" approached police and said he knew about "whatever happened on Runyon Street."

He went to the police station the night of the murders and the following night. His mother, Taminko Sanford, believed he was giving the police information he may have picked up in the neighborhood, she told Michigan Radio. Sanford was questioned by the police alone, without an attorney or adult advocate, and eventually confessed to the murders. Sanford’s mother said he is blind in one eye, could barely read or write in 2007, and only confessed to please police.

The case had seen increased scrutiny after Smothers confessed to the murders. Smothers filed an affidavit last year describing in detail how he and an accomplice carried out the Runyon Street murders Sanford had confessed too.

"I hope to have the opportunity to testify in court to provide details and drawings of the crime scene that could only be known by the person who committed the crime: me," he wrote in the affidavit.

The development comes slightly over a year after Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School filed the motion for relief granted Tuesday by Judge Sullivan.

A press release from Northwestern describes how the advocates filed the Motion for Relief of Justice based on "the detailed, corroborated confession by Smothers to the Runyon Street murders and highlighting the obvious unreliability of Davontae Sanford’s confessions, given their complete lack of corroboration and many inaccuracies."  

After the filing of the motion in April 2015, Worthy asked the state police to take another look at the killings. They re-investigated the murders, and provided Worthy the report supporting Sanford’s innocence.

Megan Crane, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern, applauded the state police and said the case shows the need for juveniles to be represented by counsel in interrogation and "the dangers of police investigation practices that rely heavily upon confessions."

"Here, a 14-year-old kid confessed to a crime he did not commit only after he had been interrogated repeatedly over the course of two days without an attorney, or even a parent, present. His confession made little sense and got more wrong than right," she said.

David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said although it was nine years too late, he was pleased the injustice would be corrected.

"This has been an extraordinary case in which the guilty party took responsibility, but the justice system took many years to acknowledge the complete breakdown that allowed for Davontae to sit in prison for nine years," he said. "Davontae can now return to his family and, for the first time in his adult life, live as a free man."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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