Sanford case in limbo as murder charges not yet dropped

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Davontae Sanford was released from prison more than two weeks ago after serving eight years for murders he didn’t commit, but the charges against him have not yet been dropped.

Sanford is free on personal bond while awaiting Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan to formally approve Wayne County Prosecutors’ June 8 motion to dismiss the murder charges.

Court officials say the approval is held up to allow Sullivan to review “supplemental information,” and they insist the question of whether Sanford will be sent back to prison is not on the table.

With the charges hanging over Sanford’s head, it will be difficult for him to move on with his life, said two men who spent years in prison after being wrongfully convicted.

“It’s just needless stress on him,” said Ken Wyneimko, who spent nine years in prison for a sexual assault before DNA evidence exonerated him.

“It’s hard enough trying to get your life back, and trying to get back into society. But he won’t be able to even start trying to put this all behind him when he’s in limbo like this.

“He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and given what he’s been through, I’m sure he doesn’t have a lot of faith in the system to do the right thing.”

Sullivan, Sanford and his attorneys declined to comment.

Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Sanford the same day Sullivan vacated Sanford’s 37-to-90 year prison sentence and released him on personal bond.

The judge’s approval of the motion has been held up to allow him to study elements of the case, Third Circuit Court General Councel Richard Lynch said.

“The parties met with the judge on Tuesday and attorneys provided supplemental information that’s being reviewed,” Lynch said. He added he didn’t know what information had been provided.

“This is an unusual situation,” he said. “There seem to be more questions than answers at times.”

Thomas Highers, who along with his brother Raymond, was released from prison in August 2012 after serving 25 years for a murder they didn’t commit, said he knows what Sanford is going through.

Highers and his brother had to wait nearly a year after their release from prison before their case was formally dismissed.

“It’s terrifying,” said Highers. “There’s always the chance of going back (to prison), so you walk around afraid of what’s going to happen, because you really don’t know.”

2007 case

University of Detroit-Mercy law professor Larry Dubin said he didn’t understand why Sullivan handled the case the way he did.

“It’s unclear to me why the judge would set a bond, rather than just dismissing the charges right away,” Dubin said.

Of the delay, Dubin added: “Without knowing what supplemental information the judge is reviewing, it’s difficult to understand why this issue hasn’t been resolved already.”

On Sept. 17, 2007, the 14-year-old Sanford was questioned by police hours after four people were gunned down in a drug house on Runyon in Detroit. He says he was pressured into confessing to the crimes, and later into pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

The decision to free Sanford from prison came after Michigan State Police submitted to prosecutors a report that found former Detroit police official James Tolbert allegedly committed perjury when he testified Sanford had drawn a crime scene sketch. Tolbert told state investigators last year he drew the map.

State police are seeking a perjury charge against Tolbert, along with murder charges against the men state detectives say were responsible for the September 2007 murders: Hit man Vincent Smothers; his alleged accomplice, identified by News sources as Ernest Davis; and a third man who has not been named.

Smothers was arrested in April 2008, two weeks after Sanford was sent to prison. The hit man confessed to 12 murders, including the four on Runyon for which Sanford was convicted.

Requests under review

The murder and perjury warrant requests are under review, Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said.

Prosecutors have until July 13 to decide whether to charge Tolbert before the six-year statute of limitations expires. The former Flint police chief’s alleged perjury occurred during a July 13, 2010. If he’s not charged by the deadline, he can’t be prosecuted.

The status of the murder charges is in question, as state police and prosecutors differ over the need for more investigation.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she will return the warrant requests to state police for more work. State police Lt. Mike Shaw said he doesn’t expect prosecutors to return the warrant requests.

Miller responded in an email to The Detroit News: “If MSP refuses to conduct the further investigation that we need, we will ask that they put that in writing and we will refer it to another agency. We will be requesting further investigation.”

Lynch said the ongoing issues have delayed Sullivan issuing an order to formally dismiss charges against Sanford.

“There are a lot of unusual circumstances surrounding this case,” he said.

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