Lawyer who defended Sanford tries to get license back

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The attorney who convinced 14-year-old Davontae Sanford to plead guilty to four drug house murders he didn’t commit is trying to get his law license back after it was suspended for breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house.

Robert Slameka also lost his driver’s license years ago because he owed more than $600 in unpaid parking tickets. At a recent Michigan Attorney Discipline Board hearing to determine whether to restore his law license, Slameka blamed his “drunken” wife for the 42 outstanding infractions, saying she would become intoxicated and throw the tickets away without telling him.

There was a hole in his story, though: His wife was dead when the tickets were issued.

His mother was dead, too, but that didn’t stop Slameka from posthumously forging her name on her stock dividend checks and depositing them into his bank account.

Slameka has come under fire for being one of many links in the criminal justice system that failed Sanford, who was released last week from prison after being wrongfully convicted in 2008 for the quadruple homicide in a house on Detroit’s east side. Slameka was hired by the Sanford family early in the case, after they dismissed a public defender. Taminko Sanford-Tilmon told The Detroit News she hired Slameka to represent her son after hearing about him from an acquaintance.

A May 31 Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission response to Slameka’s petition to restore his license offers a glimpse into the Wayne County court system, which critics say often favors expedience over justice. The Sanford case has been cited as an egregious example of the court’s fast-food culture.

The 23-page report to the attorney discipline board also lays out a series of Slameka’s sometimes bizarre transgressions, such as using a casino hotel lobby as his law office.

Slameka had his law license suspended in April 2015. It was his second suspension. In the grievance commission’s report, Assistant Deputy Administrator Cynthia Bullington asked the state discipline board to deny Slameka’s petition to be allowed to practice law again.

No date for a decision by the three-member panel has been set.

Two Wayne County circuit judges went to bat for Slameka, who has had 17 reprimands and admonishments since 1986. Bullington’s report cites their testimony during the recent discipline board hearings, in which the judges argue Slameka should continue practicing law because he saves time by quickly pleading cases.

Slameka, who has not responded to requests for comment, has been criticized for convincing Sanford to plead guilty to the 2007 killings. Slameka didn’t make an opening statement in the trial and didn’t cross-examine the officer in charge of the case.

Sanford, now 23, confessed to the murders, but the details he gave police didn’t match evidence at the crime scene. Two weeks after his conviction, hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to committing 12 homicides, including those for which Sanford was convicted. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said last week she’s considering murder charges against Smothers and two other men, following an 11-month state police investigation.

During a May 3 hearing on Slameka’s petition to get his law license reinstated, cited in Bullington’s report, David Moran of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which handled Sanford’s appeal, sharply condemned the lawyer’s handling of the teen’s case.

Moran told the three-member discipline board “99.5 out of a 100” attorneys would have tried to have Sanford’s confession thrown out of court.

He added Slameka is “the last person in the Michigan Bar Directory that I would want to have represent anyone close to me, or anyone off the street, for that matter.”

According to a transcript of a hearing not cited in Bullington’s report, Slameka defended his work on the Sanford case to the discipline board.

“I advised him. I gave him all his rights. I visited him six times in jail. I got nowhere with him,” Slameka said, according to the Associated Press.

Sanford’s mother told The News Slameka never visited her son in jail.

Bullington, in her report, also criticized Slameka’s record of pleading cases: “(Slameka’s) expedition in processing cases quickly may assist docket control but speed is not always ... consistent with the interests of an innocent defendant.”

But Slameka’s propensity for cutting quick plea deals is the very reason two Wayne Circuit judges advocated for his reinstatement.

“We’ve got a system that rewards people for settling cases and not trying them and doesn’t pay you for spending time with your clients,” Slameka’s witness, Judge Richard Scutt, said during an April 1 discipline board hearing.

Several grievances filed

Judge James Chylinski, who also testified on Slameka’s behalf April 1, said: “Frank Murphy (Hall of Justice) is a world in its own” because of the high number of cases and how fast they’re handled.

“The funny thing about Frank Murphy is that the lawyers know the judges, they pretty much know the prosecutors. When they get a case, they can look at the facts and they probably know within 15-20 percent what the disposition’s going to be at an arraignment.”

Clients through the years “have become more obstinate, they tend to trust the lawyers less, and the lawyers that have been around, you know, you try to tell them hey, this is your deal, this is the best you got, our chances of winning are 20 percent, (and clients) want to argue with the lawyers,” Chylinski said.

That’s what Sanford’s attorneys said happened to him during the trial: Slameka told the teen he should plead guilty to second-degree murder because there was an iron-clad first-degree murder case against him, and if he didn’t cut a deal, he’d never get out of prison.

Several clients have filed grievances against Slameka, but Chylinski said they did so because they “don’t like what they’re hearing” about their cases.

Chylinski said Wayne Circuit Court has a “M*A*S*H mentality” where clients’ conduct “sickens you to the point that you really do not like the people you represent, the people that you see, and you have to divorce yourself from it.”

‘Better Call Saul’

Slameka’s habit of doing business in a casino hotel lobby was also criticized in the report.

“One is hard pressed to understand (Slameka’s) reluctance to maintain an appropriate office system given his financial resources and the need to serve his clients appropriately,” Bullington wrote. “(Slameka) had over $760,000 in his bank account, two homes ... and stock holdings. The question remains of why he (didn’t get an office)?”

Bullington cited an exchange between Slameka and discipline board panelist Paul Fischer during the April 1 hearing:

Fischer: “Where’s your new office?”

Slameka: “The hotel lobby of the downtown casino.”

Fischer: “You know, it sounds like ‘Better Call Saul.’ ”

Bullington pointed out how Slameka was caught lying when questioned about more than $600 he owed from outstanding parking tickets.

During the April 1 hearing, Slameka said of his wife: “In her drunken state (she) would just park someplace, the car would get ticketed, and she’d either throw them on the ground or put them in the drawer, which I found later, and I did not know until the Secretary of State wrote me and said you can’t get a driver’s license.

“I said why? And they said you have this amount of tickets. Well, what am I going to do? She’s not here, so I went down to the horrible place on Lafayette and Sixth and paid them.”

Bullington noted that Slameka’s wife, Susan, died in May 2008 — before some of the tickets were written.

Dead mom signing

Slameka had his law license suspended 11 months after his May 2014 breaking and entering and larceny convictions, for which he was sentenced to probation. He claimed he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment to retrieve a wallet he’d left there. He told police he didn’t find the wallet, but that he took several items of clothing he’d bought his ex.

In her report, Bullington cited another reason she felt Slameka shouldn’t get his law license restored: “Signing one’s dead mother’s name to checks and then lying about it is not exemplary conduct.”

Slameka’s mother died in 2005, Bullington wrote. “(She) had purchased stocks and placed his name on the stocks to eliminate probate proceeds. (Slameka) claimed he notified the issuing companies of his mother’s death.”

But bank records show that after his mother died, Slameka continued forging her signature onto the dividend checks and depositing them into his account, Bullington said.

When first questioned about the checks, Slameka said he hadn’t posthumously signed his mother’s name. “After being shown checks with both names signed, (Slameka) acknowledged that he had signed his deceased mother’s name to the checks on multiple occasions.”

In her conclusion, Bullington wrote that Slameka hasn’t met the standards to continue practicing law.

“For the profession, the practice of law encompasses such concepts as reputation, honor and discretion. For the courts, attorneys act as its officers to ensure that the public confidence is maintained in the integrity of the system.

“Beyond serving as an expediter, it appears these concepts are beyond (Slameka’s comprehension).”

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