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Attorneys Valerie Newman, with the State Appellate Defender Office, and David Moran, of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, fought to exonerate Davontae Sanford, who spent nearly nine years in prison for murders he didn’t commit. Chris Farina and Brandy Baker, The Detroit News

Pair worked for years to exonerate Davontae Sanford after serving nearly nine years for murders he says he didn’t commit

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Thanks to the efforts of two attorneys, Davontae Sanford was released from prison in June after serving nearly nine years for murders he says he didn’t commit.

Sanford was 14 in September 2007 when four people were killed on Detroit’s east side. He says he was tricked into confessing, and was coerced by an unscrupulous lawyer into pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

Two weeks after he went to prison, hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to 12 murders, including the four for which Sanford was convicted.

Valerie Newman, an attorney with the State Appellate Defender Office, fought for years to exonerate Sanford. In 2015, the case was picked up by the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, a student-run group headed by law professor David Moran.

In June, prosecutors dropped the charges against Sanford, and he walked out of prison with Newman at his side.

“My lawyers have supported me through everything,” Sanford told The Detroit News after his release. “Like Val (Newman); I don’t look at her as my mother. I look at her as my second mother.”

Moran said the Sanford case was the most complex the Innocence Clinic has dealt with since its inception in 2009.

“This is the most compelling case you’ll ever see, because it shows how the system can totally fail a young boy,” Moran said. “So many things went wrong at so many levels, and so many actors were involved, that it’s really an indictment on the entire criminal justice system in Wayne County. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

After Sanford’s release, Newman said: “One of the really tremendous failures of the system was his defense attorney (Robert Slameka, whose law license is suspended for ethical violations).

“There was not one pretrial motion that was brought,” Newman said. “Davontae’s confession had all the hallmarks of a false confession; (it was) never challenged.”

Sanford said his attorneys went above and beyond to help exonerate him.

“It wasn’t like a lawyer-client relationship, it was like family … they really care about the people they deal with,” he said. “It’s not something they do to make a living.”

George Hunter

Valerie Newman

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Michigan; Juris Doctorate, Wayne State University Law School

Family: Wife, Jennifer Litomisky

Why honored: For her vigilance in fighting to exonerate Davontae Sanford

David Moran

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Michigan; master’s degree, Cambridge University, England; master’s degree, Cornell University; Juris Doctorate, University of Michigan Law School

Family: Married to Kris Olsson; two daughters — Annika and Ingrid

Why honored: For leading the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic’s efforts to exonerate Davontae Sanford

Read about the other Michiganians of the Year

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