DETROIT – A man who entered prison as a teenager in 2008 stepped out into sunshine and freedom Wednesday, eight years after a professional hit man told authorities he was responsible for the slayings.
The hit man's first acknowledgement that he was involved came only about two weeks after Davontae Sanford was sent away. But prosecutors repeatedly refused to reopen the case, believing they had already put the right killer behind bars.
Sanford, 23, emerged from a prison in Ionia in western Michigan. He declined to speak to reporters and quickly drove off with a brother and two lawyers for the 130-mile trip back to Detroit.
A day earlier, Sanford's guilty pleas were erased by a judge at the request of prosecutors who conceded the case was compromised by flawed police work.
"I feel blessed," said Sanford's mother, Taminko Sanford, who stayed behind to greet her son at home.
Sanford was 14 — blind in one eye and barely able to read or write — when he was charged with killing four people at a drug den in his neighborhood in 2007. At 15, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the midst of trial and was sentenced to a minimum of 39 years in prison.
Smothers, 35, is in prison for 52 years after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight killings. He said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade but would never take on someone like Sanford as a sidekick.
The case appeared closed and unremarkable until lawyers discovered the hit man's confession to the same so-called Runyon Street murders, along with eight other killings, just 15 days after Sanford was sent to prison. That touched off years of efforts to get the guilty pleas set aside, but prosecutors resisted at every turn until state police were asked last year to take a fresh look.
The agreement to throw out the convictions doesn't mention the hit man, Vincent Smothers. Instead, prosecutor Kym Worthy said Detroit police — not Sanford — had drawn a diagram of the murder scene. She said that "seriously undermines" the entire case.
Michigan offers no financial remedy to people wrongly convicted of a crime.
Here is Sanford as he walked out of the prison with his brother and attorneys:
Case history from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office
In the spring of 2015, a motion for relief from judgment was filed by Sanford's attorneys, and Worthy determined that the case warranted an investigation by an independent law enforcement agency. On May 4, 2015, Worthy requested that the Michigan State Police re-investigate the four homicides that occurred on Runyon Street in Detroit. One year later, on May 20, 2016, the State Police submitted a report of their investigation. Included in that report is a recorded interview in which former Deputy Chief James Tolbert contradicts his sworn testimony that Sanford drew the entire diagram of the crime scene, including the location of the victims' bodies, while being questioned by the police. This called into question Tolbert’s credibility in the case. Recognizing the importance of that testimony, attorneys from the Prosecutor’s Office worked with Sanford's attorneys from Dykema Gossett to move to dismiss his case."