Michigan State Police are recommending murder charges be filed against a hit man and his alleged partner in a quadruple homicide in Detroit — the same killings attributed to a 14-year-old with learning disabilities, according to sources familiar with the case.
As part of their report, state police Friday also submitted a warrant request seeking perjury charges against a former high-ranking Detroit Police official who testified in the case, sources told The Detroit News.
Davontae Sanford, now 23, was convicted in 2008 of gunning down three men and a woman in a drug house on Runyon on the city’s east side the year before. He had confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, although his appellate attorneys argued he was a confused kid who was coerced into a false confession.
Two weeks after he went to prison, police arrested hit man Vincent Smothers, who admitted to several killings, including those on Runyon.
State investigators have wrapped up an 11-month probe into the case, which they turned over Friday to Wayne County prosecutors, Michigan State Police Lt. Calvin Hart said, although he did not confirm who the warrant requests were for.
Following increasing concerns by Sanford’s supporters that the wrong man was jailed for the killings, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy asked the state police in June to re-investigate the Runyon homicide case.
“The investigation has been completed, and we’ve submitted the results to prosecutors,” Hart said. “They’ll decide whether any charges will come down against the people involved.”
Sources told The News the report does not implicate Sanford in the killings; instead, it corroborates the story Smothers told police: That he and his partner, Ernest Davis, committed the crime. State police submitted warrant requests to prosecutors seeking first-degree murder charges against Smothers and Davis in the case, sources said.
Sources added the investigation strongly criticizes the way police and prosecutors handled the case.
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller declined to comment Friday.
As prosecutors consider the warrant requests, Detroit police have launched their own internal investigation into detectives’ actions in the case, Police Chief James Craig said.
“I need to find out: Was this case mishandled?” Craig said. “And, if so, was there criminal misconduct on the part of current and former members of this department, or was it just administrative misconduct? Even though I wasn’t chief at the time, if there was some wrongdoing by officers, I want to deal with it.”
Neither Smothers nor Davis were ever charged with the Runyon killings, although Smothers is serving 50-100 years in prison after pleading guilty to eight other murders-for-hire, while Davis was sentenced to up to 15 years for a December 2012 shooting of a security guard.
“(Smothers) gave the police details about all his crimes, including the killings on Runyon Street,” Smothers’ attorney, Gabi Silver, told The News. “The police interviewed him about all the other cases, but never about the Runyon case. So they believed him with all the other cases, but not that one?”
Silver added Smothers has cooperated with state police investigators in their latest probe.
“He’s been willing to testify Davontae Sanford had nothing to do with the killings,” Silver said. “Come on, now: He’s a very savvy guy; there’s no way he’d bring a 14-year-old disabled kid to help him with a hit.”
Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford, and the family’s attorneys declined to comment Friday. Her son is serving 37-90 years in Chippewa Correctional Facility.
In his confession, Smothers provided accurate details including where one of the murder weapons allegedly used by Davis, a .45 pistol, was stashed. Ballistics showed it had been used in the killings.
Spent cartridges from a second gun used in the crime, an AK-47, matched casings found at the scene of another Smothers homicide.
Sanford, on the other hand, told police he had used a mini-14 rifle to commit the killings — but no shell casings matching that gun were found at the scene.
Despite the gun evidence, Smothers’ confession and his repeated insistence Sanford had nothing to do with the murders, prosecutors have said the right person was convicted.
In court filings, prosecutors said the hit man’s confession does not necessarily acquit Sanford. They also point out Sanford pleaded guilty to the crimes, although his defense team says the plea was coerced by an attorney with a long record of being disciplined for improperly representing clients.
With the warrant requests for Smothers and Davis, Worthy has several options: decline to bring charges against the two; send the request back to state police for further investigation; charge the two men with the murders and drop the charges against Sanford; or charge the two men, but decline to drop the charges against Sanford.
The hit man or the teen?
Innocence advocates have long decried the Sanford case as a miscarriage of justice, while prosecutors defended their assertion that Sanford, who had no criminal record, walked into a drug house and fatally shot four people as they watched Monday Night Football. Sanford told police he had accomplices, but those he named had alibis and were cleared as suspects.
After Sanford was charged with the killings, he told a psychologist he’d lied to police about being involved because investigators promised him he could go home if he would “just (tell) them something.” Sanford gave inaccurate details about the crime, including the number of people involved and the type of weapons used.
In a 2013 court filing, prosecutors pointed out Sanford told his stepfather Jermaine Tillman during a jailhouse telephone call that three men, “Bug,” “T,” and “Homie” had helped him commit the murders, which matched the story Sanford told police in the hours after the shootings.
“So, if defendant’s guilty plea was false, that is, if it was simply used to garner favor from authority figures, what would possess him to keep up the lie with his stepfather?” prosecutors said in the motion. Sanford’s attorneys point out the three men Sanford named were all cleared by police.
Prosecutors have also said gun residue found on Sanford’s pants implicates him in the crime, although Sanford’s attorneys point out no residue was found on his hands or face, nor was blood found on him or his clothes. Sanford claimed he shared the pants with three other teenagers.
‘Sanford was not involved’
After Sanford’s conviction, Smothers was arrested and confessed to several murders-for-hire, including the quadruple homicide on Runyon Street. He told police he was paid by drug dealers to kill one of the victims, Michael Robinson, who grew marijuana in his basement. The other three victims were collateral damage, he said.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Davontae Sanford was not involved in the Sept. 17 murders on Runyon Street in any way,” Smothers wrote in an affidavit filed in Wayne Circuit Court last year. Smothers added he’d never met, or heard of, Sanford before police told him Sanford had been convicted of the killings.
Attorneys for years have worked to get Sanford’s conviction overturned, saying he was a troubled teen who tried to make police happy by confessing to the slayings.
The most recent attempt to exonerate Sanford was an April 2015 Wayne Circuit Court filing by the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at the Northwestern University School of Law that includes an “accurate, corroborated and highly detailed confession” by Smothers, “establishing that he and an adult male accomplice committed the Runyon Street murders and that Davontae Sanford was not involved,” the filing said.
Smothers’ affidavit, which was attached to the filing constitutes “compelling new evidence of Mr. Sanford’s actual innocence,” defense attorneys assert. “When Mr. Smothers’ reliable confession is considered against Mr. Sanford’s wildly inaccurate, uncorroborated confession, and the paltry remaining purported evidence of guilt, it would be a manifest injustice to allow Mr. Sanford’s plea to stand.”
Weeks after the filing, Worthy sent a letter to state police, asking them for “investigative assistance” on the case.
When Wayne Circuit Judge Craig Strong sentenced Smothers after his guilty plea, he expressed concern about a pre-sentence report that indicated the hit man had confessed to the Runyon killings for which Sanford was convicted.
Strong urged Smothers to try to help Sanford. “You cannot bring back those you killed,” the judge said. “But you can correct wrongs for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted for killing people that you killed.”
Since Sanford’s 2008 conviction, advocates have raised questions about the case, including:
¦The decision by police to interview Sanford hours after the murders without a parent or lawyer present.
¦The failure to videotape the first police interview with Sanford.
¦Discrepancies between Sanford’s first confession, in which he gave the wrong information, including the type of gun used in the crime and the number of shooters involved, and his second interview, in which more accurate details were provided. His second interview was videotaped, in which a sergeant feeds him details about the crime, and Sanford rarely says anything other than mumbling “yeah” or “no.”
¦The performance of Sanford’s attorney, Robert Slameka, who has been censured 17 times by the state Attorney Discipline Board for improperly representing clients. Slameka, whose law license is suspended after he was convicted last year of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house, convinced Sanford to plead guilty to second-degree murder, telling him prosecutors had an iron-clad case, and that if he pleaded, he’d get out of prison some day. During the trial, Slameka waived making an opening statement, and never cross-examined the detective who questioned Sanford.
Slameka did not respond to an interview request.