Judge orders Davontae Sanford to be released from prison

Sanford pleaded guilty to 2007 quadruple homicide when he was 14

By Halston Herrera - Digital news editor, Dave Bartkowiak Jr.
DETROIT - A  judge has ordered the release of a young Detroit man who is in prison after pleading guilty to killing four people at age 14, a crime for which a hit man later took responsibility.

Wayne County Third Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan on Tuesday signed an order vacating Davontae Sanford’s conviction and sentence in the 2007 slayings, and directing that the Michigan Department of Corrections immediately release Sanford on his own recognizance. 

Davontae Sanford

Davontae Sanford (Michigan Department of Corrections)

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Thursday. Attorneys at Dykema and Gossett said Tuesday evening Sanford was on his way to Detroit.

Sanford, now 23, has served 8 years of a 37-to-90-year prison sentence. He was 15 when he pleaded guilty. He later said his confession was false, but he has remained in a prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Now he'll be released on bond and all charges will eventually be dropped, according to Sullivan's order.

Vincent Smothers

Vincent Smothers

Vincent Smothers

The hit man, Vincent Smothers, gave a sworn affidavit that said he and an accomplice killed the four people in a known drug house -- not Sanford. 

Read: Hit man takes another step to help convict 

Smothers is serving prison time for eight unrelated killings.

Watch file video: Davontae Sanford case

ReadEx-DPD lieutenant gets sentence for perjury, corruption charges

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." 

Investigative attorneys had cried foul

Sanford has vision in one eye. His family said he has learning disabilities and cracked under pressure from Detroit police when he admitted to killing four people in what was described as a grisly shooting scene. Legal experts agreed.

A team of legal investigators from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University were suspicious and began looking into Sanford's case for a possible wrongful conviction. They said he had been wandering around in his pajamas on the night of the shootings. There was no gun residue or blood found on Sanford's body.

In 2015, attorney Megan Crane, of the Northwestern Center for the Wrongful Conviction of Youth, blasted the Detroit Police Department's actions and how the Prosecutor's Office handled the case. 

For 7 years, the Detroit Police Department and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office have had in their hands extraordinary evidence that Davontae Sanford is, in fact, actually innocent," said Crane. 

David Moran, who heads the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan, also was outspoken. 

I can't come to any other conclusion here than the people who won the conviction against Davontae Sanford simply can't come to accept that they sent a 14-year-old boy to prison for four murders he didn't commit," said Moran in 2015.

Crane and Moran released the following statements after Tuesday's ruling was announced:

After 3,185 days of prison time for a crime he did not commit, Davontae finally got justice today. Davontae and his family, and many lawyers, have fought long and hard to show the truth in this case. We could not be happier that this day is finally here. In particular, we want to applaud the Michigan State Police (MSP) for their truly extraordinary reinvestigation of the Runyon Street murders and Davontae Sanford’s innocence. The evidence underlying Judge Sullivan and Kym Worthy’s decision today was uncovered by the MSP and they deserve immense credit," said Crane. 

Moran called the case a "complete breakdown." Here is his full statement:

We are pleased that Davontae Sanford finally will have this injustice corrected, albeit nine years too late. 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. Davontae can now return to his family and, for the first time in his adult life, live as a free man."

Copyright 2016 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.