Now free of prison, Sanford wants to help jailed youths
Detroiter who went to prison at age 14 for a crime he didn't commit, refuses to play the "blame game," and talks of growth and plans for the future. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News
Instead of being bitter about spending more than a third of his life in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, Davontae Sanford said he wants to channel his energy toward fixing the way the criminal justice system deals with children.
“I’m not going to play the blame game. I’m out (of prison),” said Sanford, who was arrested in 2007 when he was 14 for a quadruple homicide in a drug house on the city’s east side.
“I’d like to bring awareness to kids in the criminal justice system,” Sanford, 23, said at a news conference Thursday at Total Life Christian Ministries Church on East McNichols. “The mental health treatment is terrible.
“Me being angry didn’t do nothing; it just hurt me,” he said as he stood on the church’s altar, hands in his pockets. “What’s the use in being mad?”
Sanford was released from prison Wednesday after the judge who presided over his trial vacated his sentence, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced she would drop the charges against him. Earlier Thursday, Worthy explained at a press conference what led to her decision.
Now, he said, he’s going to try to put his life back together.
“I want to learn some things I never got the chance to do, like learning how to drive,” he said.
Sanford said there were some dark times in prison. “I was almost close to that breaking point a few times,” he said.
When asked how he managed to survive in prison, he jerked his thumb toward his mother. “Her,” he said.
Taminko Sanford-Tilmon fought back tears as she thanked everyone who supported her efforts to exonerate her son.
“There were days I thought I couldn’t make it,” she said, adding that family attorney Valerie Newman was instrumental in securing her son’s freedom and keeping her spirits up.
“There were days when I thought I couldn’t make it; she kept me positive, and gave me the things that I needed.”
Sanford-Tilmon said her son lost a huge chunk of his life. “His whole life has been taken from him. He missed prom; graduating from middle school; high school.
“I laid in bed this morning crying because I still can’t believe he’s home,” Sanford-Tilmon said. “I’ve been smothering him. If I could cut up his food and feed it to him, I would.”
Several times before Sanford’s release, his mother had said she wanted to prepare a home-cooked meal for him — but Sanford said his first meal after leaving prison was sesame chicken from a Chinese restaurant.
“I’ve been craving Chinese food for years. I told my mom, ‘don’t waste your time cooking.’ ”
Sanford had advice for anyone languishing in prison for crimes they didn’t commit: “Keep fighting. Don’t give up. If you know you’re in prison for something you didn’t do, don’t roll over.”
“I had no choice but to grow,” he said.
Newman said that isn’t entirely true. “There are always choices. He could have let prison do him, instead of him doing the time. But he didn’t. I don’t know if people understand how vulnerable he was going into prison. He was (15); he was a slight, short young man. It’s a great tribute to his character.”
Sanford said the past few days have been exhilarating.
“There’s song lyrics that say, ‘what a time to be alive.’ That’s how I feel right now: What a time to be alive.
“I know it’s going to take some time to get (acclimated to the outside world), but the hard part is over.”
How to help
A change.org account has been set up to raise money to help Sanford re-integrate into the community. As of 4:30 p.m. Thursday, nearly $3,800 had been raised.
“Your donations will be given directly to Davontae to help him rebuild his life; he needs everything from clothes to education,” organizer Sam Kaspick said.