Team pushes new trial for Detroiter convicted as teen

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The lengthy battle to free a man who was convicted of a quadruple homicide at age 14 continued Wednesday with a team of attorneys filing a motion in Wayne Circuit Court seeking a new trial.

Advocates for Davontae Sanford, now 22, point out that convicted hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the 2007 murders in a known drug house on Runyon Street on the city's east side. Smothers even told investigators where the murder weapon, a .45 caliber pistol, could be found.

While Smothers has insisted on several occasions Sanford has nothing to do with the murders, Wayne County prosecutors have steadfastly insisted they convicted the right man, citing Sanford's confession and guilty plea to the Sept. 17, 2007, slayings.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth filed a 45-page motion for a new trial.

"How many more days must Davontae Sanford and his loving family wait for justice?" Megan Crane of Northwestern's Bluhm Legal Clinic said during a press conference Wednesday outside the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.

"Justice has not been done in this case ... a young Detroit man, then just a child, was wrongfully convicted, sent to an adult prison as a child, and now has lost eight years of his life for a crime he did not commit," Crane said. "The injustice will continue until the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office faces the truth and does the right thing."

Vincent Smothers

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said in a statement: "We are aware that a new brief will be filed in the case. At the appropriate time, we will file a response and argue our legal position in court."

University of Michigan law professor David Moran said a judge will be assigned to the case within a few days. Prosecutors will then have 56 days to respond to their motion, he said.

In 2012, Sanford's attorneys filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, although Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan denied the motion. Sullivan's decision was overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals. The case went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled in April 2014 that Sanford couldn't withdraw his guilty plea, but allowed him to pursue his appeal.

Sanford, who is serving a 37-year sentence in the Ionia Correctional Facility, is locked in a cell 23 hours a day, his mother, Taminko Sanford, said Wednesday.

Taminko Sanford, center, the mother of Davontae Sanford, with other relatives and supporters on Wednesday.

"He's been away for eight years for a crime he didn't commit — that would give anyone a bad day," Sanford said, adding that she will continue to fight to free her son. "If we give up, he'll give up, and we're not going to allow him as a family to do that."

After the four victims were killed inside the Runyon Street drug house, Sanford's mother said her son, who was illiterate and blind in one eye, was arrested after he walked up to police at the crime scene and claimed he knew what had happened. He was 14 at the time.

Prosecutors say Sanford later confessed to killings, although his attorneys say police coerced the confession, adding Sanford didn't have an attorney or a parent present during the interrogation. Crane pointed out that Sanford told the police he'd used a weapon that hadn't been used in the killings.

Since Sanford's 2008 conviction, the case has taken several turns. Despite Smothers' confession that he killed 12 people, including the four victims on Runyon Street, and Rose Cobb, the wife of Detroit Police Sgt. David Cobb, who later committed suicide, prosecutors cut a deal with Smothers for the reduced charge of second-degree murder. Prosecutors said they entered the plea deal to save taxpayers money on a lengthy trial. Smothers was sentenced to 50 to 100 years.

Crane said part of Smothers' plea deal was an agreement to stay silent about the Runyon slayings of Michael Robinson, Deangelo McNoriell, Brian Dixon and Nicole Chapman — even though he'd given police a detailed description of the killings during his videotaped confession, even leading investigators to the murder weapon.

"Despite Smothers' uncannily accurate, highly detailed and perfectly corroborated confession, he was never charged for the Runyon murders," Crane said.

In a March 6 affidavit, Smothers reiterated Sanford had nothing to do with the killings.

"Davontae Sanford is being wrongfully incarcerated for crimes that I know he did not commit," Smothers said, adding that he and his partner, Ernest "Nemo" Davis, were hired to carry out the hit by a rival drug dealer.

Davis was never charged with the killings, although he later was convicted for shooting a security guard in December 2012 and is serving up to 15 years in prison.

In a tangential development, the Detroit police investigator in charge of the Smothers case, Ira Todd, filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit in 2008 claiming he was ordered to refrain from asking Smothers certain questions and told to purge the name of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from his report, after Todd's investigation took him to Lexington, Kentucky, where he said Smothers and Davis would hide after carrying out murders for hire.

Todd said in the lawsuit, which is ongoing, that Lexington police officials told him Davis' brother, James Davis, claimed he had ties to Kilpatrick. James Davis is serving a 30-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2010 to wire fraud.

In another twist, William Rice, former head of the Detroit Police Homicide Section, was convicted of lying under oath about Sanford's whereabouts at the time of the murders. Rice lied during a 2009 hearing to determine an appeal for Sanford. Rice, who wasn't a witness at Sanford's original trial, lied when he testified during the appeal that he was with the boy at the time of the murders.

In a separate case, Rice and his girlfriend, Cheryl Sanford — Davontae Sanford's great-aunt — were convicted of conducting a continuing criminal enterprise involving mortgage fraud, perjury and drug dealing. The crimes began in 2006, the same year Rice retired from the police force as a lieutenant.

Rice, 65, was sentenced last year to between two and 20 years in prison.

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