Adjusting to freedom hasn’t been easy for Davontae Sanford, but he says mentoring young people has helped him navigate life without bars.
Sanford spent more than nine years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a 2007 quadruple homicide. He was 14 when charged with the murders, and a year later began his prison sentence, which he called “hell.”
Seven months after prosecutors dropped the charges against him and he was released from prison, after a Michigan State Police report named two other men as the real killers, Sanford says he wants to help Detroit’s youth avoid the same hell he went through.
Sanford, 24, recently launched Innocent Dreams, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide GED and job skills training, and teach young people life skills like conflict resolution and how to navigate the criminal justice system if charged with a crime.
Sanford said putting the program together has helped him cope. “I’m still trying to reintegrate into the community,” he said. “That’s my struggle. I’m trying to feel as normal as possible, but it hasn’t been easy. Just the responsibility of living, learning how to deal with relationships, learning to trust people.
“I’ve had my struggles, but other kids are also going through their struggles, whether it’s gangs, or something going on at home. We’ve all been going through stuff, and I want to tell these kids: Let’s get through it together, and make something of our lives.
“Yeah, I’ve got an interesting story, doing nine years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. But wouldn’t it be even more interesting if I got out and made something of myself, and gave back to the community?”
Since he was released in June, Sanford has spoken regularly at churches, schools and events. He hopes his new organization will allow him to offer programs to help inner-city kids cope with life’s hardships.
“We’ve got a few sponsors, but we’re trying to get more so we can get these programs going,” he said. “I want to help kids get their GED, teach them responsibility, and show them the world is bigger than just their neighborhood,” he said.
Valerie Newman, a State Appellate Defender Office attorney who worked for years to free Sanford, said she’s glad to see him giving back to the community.
“I’m really proud of him,” she said. “I think as a young person who has gone through his experiences, other young people will listen to him.”
Sanford said speaking to youth groups has helped him stay focused. “Since I’ve been out, I’ll admit: I’ve slipped a couple times,” he said. “I’m still learning how to communicate. In prison, the communication has broke down, that’s why so many people get stabbed.
“I’m still learning how to express my feelings. Prison stripped away all my emotions and my feelings — but it also helped me gain consciousness of my choices and decisions. And I want to share that with kids. Focusing my energy on helping other people ... helps me feel normal.”
Sanford said he’s disheartened when he sees young people commit crimes. “Like the case where they beat up the Detroit police dispatcher,” he said, referring to three teens who were bound over for trial last month in connection with the Jan. 3 assault and robbery of the dispatcher outside her workplace.
“Why throw your life away and give up your freedom for nothing? I see things like that and it hurts me,” Sanford said. “Maybe I can stop other young people from getting into this kind of trouble.”
Sanford said he’s already connected with a few young people. “One young guy was on Facebook posing with guns. I inboxed him and said, ‘you need to tighten that up.’ I gave him my number and told him to call me.
“After we talked for 10-15 minutes, I saw that he took every one of those pictures down. He went on Facebook and said, ‘I was just on the phone with Davontae Sanford, and he was talking real stuff.’ I hope I can do that with more kids.”
Davontae Sanford is scheduled to speak on behalf of his new organization, Innocent Dreams, at events that include:
■Monday, Jan. 30: UofM Bicentennial Colloquium with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
■Saturday, Feb. 11: Focus Hope Black History Month Mass Incarceration Event
■March 23-25: The Innocence Network Annual Conference in San Diego.
■The organization is also planning a basketball game fundraiser; no date has been set.
To contact Innocent Dreams, click on www.innocentdreams.org