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Derrick Sanders

Other Wisconsin Exonerations
On the morning of November 3, 1992, police in Milwaukee, Wisconsin were looking for 18-year-old Jason Bowie. A caller had said Bowie had been in a fight the previous night and had been taken against his will to a house at 2858 North Tenth Street.

The police searched that house and found blood stains on a jacket and on a chair near the attic. They began searching the area and noticed a basement window had been removed from an abandoned house across the back alley. Bowie’s body was inside. He had been shot once in the head.

Police first questioned 35-year-old John Peavey, one of the men Bowie had been seen with when the fighting began. Peavey would give three statements to the police. In his final account, he said that the killing happened after Bowie had stolen a television from 22-year-old Anthony Boddie, who was from Gary, Indiana, but lived in the house on North Tenth Street where the blood was found. Boddie wanted revenge. After he and Bowie began fighting, Peavey and 21-year-old Derrick Sanders joined in. The three of them took Bowie to the house on North Tenth Street, taking turns kicking and punching him.

At one point, Peavey said, a neighbor knocked on the door and said the police were in the area, so Bowie was taken down the stairs and out the back door. Peavey said Sanders and Boddie took Bowie across the alley. A few minutes later, he heard a gunshot, and then Sanders and Boddie came back to the alley. A few hours later, Peavey said, Boddie and Sanders took the bus and train back to Gary, where Sanders still lived.

Boddie turned himself in to the Gary police on November 4, 1992. He, too, gave several statements to police, but eventually said that after he and Sanders took Bowie out of the first house, it was Sanders’s idea to go into the abandoned house. They dragged Bowie into the basement, Boddie said, and he saw Sanders point a gun at Bowie. Boddie said he ran away but later heard the gunshot.

Sanders was arrested on June 13, 1993 in Urbana, Ohio, where he was now living with an uncle. He was brought back to Milwaukee for questioning. He told the police that he had taken part in the beating, but that Boddie had asked him to check out the report of the police cruising the neighborhood. He said he walked down the street, and Boddie, Peavey and Bowie were gone when he returned. He said he wasn’t there when Bowie was shot, and that he didn’t assist in his shooting. At the end of the statement he gave to police, he wrote: “I Derrick Sanders regret the fact that this incident occurred over a television set and express my sorrow.”

As a court officer would later write: “This is definitely a case where it is impossible to tell precisely what happened.”

Both Boddie and Sanders were charged with first-degree intentional homicide, party to a crime. Peavey was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, party to a crime. Peavey pled guilty on February 5, 1993. Boddie pled guilty on March 15, 1993.

Sanders pled no contest to his charge in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on September 7, 1993. He was sentenced to life in prison, but eligible for parole after January 1, 2015. Very quickly, he filed a motion to withdraw his plea, claiming he had misunderstood the potential punishment. A hearing was held in September 1994, and his motion was denied on December 20, 1994. He appealed, and on December 7, 1995, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals vacated his plea.

On March 8, 1996, Estella Sanders, Sanders’s mother, wrote a letter to her son’s new attorney, Deja Vishny. She included a notarized letter she had received a few days earlier from Anthony Boddie, who was in prison in Waupun, Wisconsin. In that letter, Boddie said Sanders had been present when Bowie was beaten, but he wasn’t around when Bowie was shot. It was just him and Peavey in the abandoned house. “The only reason I told the police that Mr. Sanders did it is because they insisted that he did it,” he wrote. “I tried to tell them that he didn’t do anything, but they kept on insisting that he did it. I was scared, so I gave a false statement.”

Sanders’s court date was on April 22, 1996. Vishny negotiated for him to once again plead no contest to intentional homicide, party to a crime. During the colloquy, Sanders was asked whether he understood the concept of “party to a crime.” He said yes. He was also asked whether he and Vishny had discussed the concept. Again, he said yes. But at no time during the court proceedings was the concept ever explained to Sanders.

Vishny and Sanders had stipulated to the state’s criminal complaint, which was based on Peavey’s statement that Sanders accompanied Boddie to the abandoned house where Bowie was shot. Boddie’s recent recantation was not introduced at the hearing. As part of the deal with prosecutors, Sanders was again sentenced to life in prison, but he was allowed to keep the same parole date, January 1, 2015.

On May 30, 2017, Sanders filed a pro se motion for post-conviction relief. He claimed that the courtroom colloquy had been deficient and that Vishny had been ineffective in her failure to understand that his plea was in conflict with what Sanders had said happened on the day Bowie was killed. After the motion was filed, an attorney named Rex Anderegg was appointed to represent Sanders.

Two days of hearings were held June 29, 2018 and July 2, 2018 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court before Judge Jeffrey Wagner. Both Vishny and Sanders testified, and they presented different recollections of their pre-plea conversations 22 years earlier. Sanders said Vishny never reviewed with him the concept of “party to a crime” prior to his plea. Vishny, an experienced and highly respected defense attorney, said she had because that was her standard procedure. She noted that she had handled numerous cases involving defendants who were parties to crimes.

Wagner found her to be credible and without a reason to lie. That said, although there were no recordings of the conversations between Sanders and Vishny, the attorney had retained her notes. Those notes showed that Sanders had told her that he wasn’t present when Bowie was shot, that he had stayed behind, and that he could not know and did not know that Bowie was going to be shot.

Sanders said during the hearing that he believed that he was liable for Bowie’s death because he had participated in the beating. Sanders testified that Vishny never reviewed with him whether that conduct made him a party to the crime of homicide. Instead, he said, she was focused on a plea and getting him the best possible sentence.

Peavey died in 2004. Boddie was still in prison, eligible for parole in 2020. Two Milwaukee police officers interviewed him on August 7, 2018. Boddie and Sanders had grown up together in Gary, but Boddie said he had not seen Sanders since they took the bus back home after Bowie was shot. Boddie repeated to the officers what he had told Estella Sanders in 1996. He said that neither Peavey nor Sanders was with him in the abandoned house when he shot Bowie. Boddie said he hadn’t planned on killing Bowie. He just wanted Bowie to acknowledge the theft. Instead, Bowie swore at Boddie, and then Boddie hit him and shot him in the head.

On August 29, 2018, Wagner granted Sanders’s motion to withdraw his plea. On September 13, 2018, Assistant District Attorney Paul Tiffin moved to dismiss the charge against Sanders. He noted that the statute of limitations on battery charges was six years and said, “The state is no longer in a position where it can prove party to a crime of the homicide, and there’s really no other charge I can proceed with.”

Wagner dismissed the charge, and Sanders was released from prison that same day.

In February 2020, the state of Wisconsin awarded Sanders $25,000 in compensation, the maximum allowed under the law without approval from the Wisconsin Legislature. Sanders’s claim had asked for an additional $5.7 million, noting that at the time of his arrest, he was a Navy veteran with an honorable discharge who had served in Operation Desert Storm. He had no criminal record, and was managing a pizza shop making $9.25 an hour. Those lost wages alone, he said, amounted to more than $500,000 over the course of his incarceration. But Sanders said he could have been much, much more. “Mr. Sanders,” he wrote, “could have made a prosperous life in politics, could have been a police officer/chief making well over $150,000/200,000 a year.”

Sanders pursued the additional compensation through the Wisconsin courts. A circuit court judge rejected his claim, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and then the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the lower appellate court in June 2023, stating that Sanders's request was properly denied because it lacked a recommendation for a larger award from the compensation board.

In April 2021, Sanders filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin against Vishny and the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office. A judge dismissed the complaint in September 2021.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/3/2019
Last Updated: 7/5/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1992
Sentence:21 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No