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Davontae Sanford

Other Michigan Cases
On September 17, 2007, two gunmen forced their way into a home at 19741 Runyon Street in Detroit, Michigan and fatally shot three men and a woman. Another woman was shot five times, but survived. A seven-year-old boy sleeping in bed survived unscathed.

Killed were reputed drug dealer Michael Robinson, 33; Deangelo McNoriell, 31; Nicole Chapman, 29; and Brian Dixon, 31. Valerie Glover, 30, survived by managing to escape to a rear bedroom where she hid under a bed.

Jesse King, a Detroit Police chaplain who lived nearby, heard the gunshots and came outside to see two men running down the street. He fired his own gun at them and the gunmen fired back, but no one was struck.

King and Glover gave descriptions of the gunmen to police. King said one man carried a rifle and was 5’11” or 6 feet tall and the second man, who carried a handgun, was slightly shorter. Glover described only one gunman and said he was 30 to 35 years old, slim and about 6 feet tall.

A police dog was brought to the location of shell casings left from the shots fired at Jesse King. The dog followed a scent, police said, for about two blocks, through a vacant lot and finally stopping after losing the scent on Beland Street. Police concluded the men had escaped by car from there.

At about that same time, 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, clad in his pajamas, left his nearby home on Beland Street to find out what was going on. Sanford was blind in one eye, 5’5” tall and weighed 150 pounds. Sgt. Michael Russell would later testify that he tried to talk to Sanford, but the youth refused to answer questions. At that point, another officer approached and Sanford said his “uncle” was Detroit police homicide commander William Rice. The other officer would later testify that he told Sanford he knew Rice and that Sanford should help them out in solving the case.

Russell then went to Sanford’s home where the boy’s grandmother, Taminka, signed a hand-written conveyance form allowing the police to take the boy to the police station. They took him back to the scene of the crime where evidence technicians swabbed him for gunshot residue, which turned out to be negative.

After 3 a.m., they took Sanford to the station and began questioning him without the grandmother’s consent. This was in violation of Michigan state law, which requires the presence of a parent or guardian during questioning of a juvenile or a signed waiver of their presence. At 4 a.m., Sanford signed statement saying he and four other youths had met at a Coney Island restaurant and planned to rob “Milk Dud.” He said they had four guns, but that he changed his mind about participating and went home before the gunshots occurred. He said one of the guns was a .38 caliber pistol. Sanford was taken home some time later.

During the day, police determined that the Coney Island was closed and there was no evidence that any .38 caliber weapon was used.

Later that night, police picked up Sanford again and brought him back to the police station. Sanford would later say that when he asked for a lawyer, he was told he was a “dumb ass” and that no lawyer was around at that time of night. The detectives said they knew he was involved because he had blood on his shoes, which was not true. Sanford said the questioning became confrontational and when he was told he could go home if he gave the officers “something,” he began making up details or picking up details based on questions and statements the officers made.

Sgt. Russell began typing up a second statement that was far more incriminating than his first. After doing so, he gave Sanford a set of Miranda warnings for the first time. In this statement, Sanford said that he and three others fired weapons into the house and then went inside and stole drugs and money. He said that the guns used were a .45-caliber pistol, an AK-47 assault rifle and a “mini-14,” which was similar to, but smaller than, an AK-47.

However, all the bullets and casings recovered at the shooting were from a .45 caliber weapon or an AK-47. And this statement included the same accomplices mentioned in the first statement, even though they had solid alibis. The detectives reported that Sanford drew a map of the house that accurately depicted the interior and the location of the bodies.

Sanford was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and one count of illegal use of a firearm.

Almost immediately, during an interview with a psychologist, Sanford, who had been classified in school as learning disabled, recanted the confession and said it was false.

On March 17, 2008, Sanford went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court. His defense attorney, Robert Slameka—who had amassed more than a dozen reprimands and admonishments for substandard defense work—did not challenge the confession even though Sanford was not given Miranda warnings until late in the second interrogation session.

Sgt. Russell testified about the confession and described how Sanford had drawn a sketch that accurately depicted the interior of the house and the location of the bodies. The prosecution also called Glover, the woman who survived the shooting, as a witness. She testified that the gunman had a high-pitched voice similar to Sanford’s—testimony that was inadmissible under Michigan law, but also went unchallenged by Slameka as did the fact that Glover’s initial description of a slim, 6 foot tall man was far different from Sanford, who was 5’5” tall and weighed 150 pounds.

After that evidence was presented, Slameka—who did not even cross-examine Russell—told Sanford and his family that the case was hopeless and that Sanford’s only choice, if he ever wanted to be free, was to plead guilty. So, on March 18, 2008, the second day of the trial, Sanford pled guilty to four counts of second-degree murder and one count of illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison on the murder charges, as well as a consecutive two-year term for the gun charge.

About one month later, in April 2008, Detroit police arrested Vincent Smothers and began interrogating him about the murder of the wife of a Detroit police officer in the summer of 2007. To the surprise of detectives, Smothers not only confessed that he had been hired by the police officer to kill his wife, but he admitted that he had committed 11 other murders—all for hire—including the four murders that Sanford had pled guilty to committing.

Smothers said that he and Ernest “Nemo” Davis committed the Runyon Street shootings and that Sanford was not involved. Smothers said that his wife had hidden an AK-47 rifle and a 45-caliber pistol in a house where Davis’s cousin lived. Police recovered a .45-caliber handgun at the house and ballistics tests linked it to the Runyon Street shooting.

Detectives refused to believe Smothers was responsible for the murders on Runyon Street because they already had Sanford’s confession and guilty plea, even though Smothers led police to one of the guns used in the shooting.

Smothers would later say—and his attorney would confirm—that he was presented with a deal to plead guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder—instead of first-degree murder—if he would remain silent about the murders on Runyon Street. Smothers rejected that deal. He ultimately pled guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder without that condition and was sentenced to 50 to 100 years in prison.

Sanford’s appellate lawyer, Kim McGinniss, of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Officer, did not learn of Smothers’ confession to the Runyon Street shootings until nearly a year later, in early 2009.

McGinnis filed a motion seeking to withdraw Sanford’s guilty plea based on a claim of actual innocence, citing Smothers’ admission that he and Davis—and not Sanford—were responsible for the Runyon Street shootings.

That motion was denied, but the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held. At that hearing, the trial court judge denied defense motions to present testimony from an expert on false confessions and also denied a defense motion to produce Smothers as a witness or to admit his hearsay admissions to a defense investigator that he and Davis committed the shooting.

Among witnesses at the hearing was William Rice, former Detroit Police homicide commander, who testified that Sanford was with him at the time of the murders. Also testifying was James Tolbert, deputy police chief, who said that Sanford had drawn the map of the interior of the house. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge again denied the motion to withdraw the guilty plea.

In 2014, Rice and Sanford’s great-aunt, Cheryl Sanford, pled guilty to mortgage fraud charges. Rice also pled guilty to perjury charges after his testimony about Sanford’s alibi was proven false by cell phone records.

The defense appealed the denial of the motion, supported by an amicus brief prepared by a team led by Megan Crane, co-director of Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and filed by attorney David Moran, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

In September 2013, the Michigan Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the trial court to allow the defense to present expert testimony on false confessions as well as testimony from Smothers’ attorney about his confession to the Runyon Street shooting. The appeals court said that the defense should be allowed to call Smothers as a witness if he chose to testify.

Before that occurred, however, the prosecution appealed and in April 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court reinstated the trial court ruling that denied Sanford’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The court held that actual innocence was not a legal basis to withdraw a guilty plea—that a plea could be withdrawn “only if the trial court determines that there was an error in the plea proceeding that would entitle the defendant to have the plea set aside.”

At that point, the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office stepped aside as Sanford’s attorney and the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth took over his case. The legal team contacted former Washington, D.C. police detective James Trainum, an expert on false confessions. Trainum analyzed Sanford’s confession and determined that the correct facts in it were based on information police knew at the time of the crime and the incorrect facts were information that police did not know at the time—suggesting that Sanford was fed information by the detectives. Trainum also analyzed Smothers’ confession and concluded Smothers was truthful.

A motion for relief from judgment was filed on Sanford’s behalf and the Michigan State Police became interested in the case. On May 4, 2015, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy formally requested a reinvestigation by the state police.

A year later, in May 2016, the state police concluded their investigation and reported to Worthy that the evidence indicated that Smothers and Davis committed the Runyon Street shooting—not Sanford.

The state police reported that during their investigation, deputy police chief Tolbert, who had testified that Sanford drew the diagram of the interior of the house, said for the first time that he—not Sanford—drew the diagram.

On June 7, 2016, Worthy and lawyers for Sanford presented a motion to Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan requesting that Sanford’s convictions and sentences be vacated. The motion said, “Tolbert’s recorded statement directly contradicts his prior sworn testimony about the drawing of the diagram and seriously undermines (a) the confession obtained from Davontae Sanford and (b) his subsequent guilty plea.”

The motion also stated, “The interests of justice require the setting aside of Davontae Sanford’s convictions and sentences.”

Judge Sullivan vacated Sanford’s convictions and ordered him released from prison. Sanford was released on June 8, 2016 and on July 19, 2016, the charges were dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/19/2016
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:39 to 90 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:14
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No