DPD opens probe of its handling of Sanford case

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit Police have launched an internal probe into how detectives handled the investigation of four 2007 murders that ended with the wrongful conviction of teenager Davontae Sanford.

Sanford was arrested at 14 in connection with the slayings on Runyon. He spent eight years in prison before he was released June 8, a day after Wayne County prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against him and a judge vacated his sentence.

“We need to find out if there was any wrongdoing during this homicide investigation by the officers who are still on the force, and if anyone will be charged with administrative misconduct,” Police Chief James Craig said. “If there was any wrongdoing by any of our officers, I promise you: We will hold them accountable.”

Sanford’s attorneys have criticized the handling of the case by Homicide Sgt. Michael Russell, the detective in charge of the Runyon murder investigation.

Among the issues, they say: Russell did not record his first interview with Sanford, despite working audiovisual equipment being available.

Also, according to Sanford, he asked for an attorney during the interrogation, only to be called a “dumb (expletive)” by Russell, who allegedly continued interviewing him.

Russell said he isn’t concerned about the investigation.

“Let’s let the smoke settle and let everybody do what they have to do. I did nothing improper, so I’m not worried about anything,” he said.

He’s now in charge of the department’s arson unit.

“We’re not sure what, if any, wrongdoing occurred, but I will say this is a different department than we were years ago,” Craig said. “There was a culture in homicide years ago which, frankly, helped lead to the department being under a federal consent decree (from 2003 until it ended earlier this year).”

Craig said internal affairs investigators will hold off interviewing detectives who were involved in the Sanford case until Wayne County prosecutors finish reviewing murder warrant requests for three men state police say are responsible for the Runyon killings: Hit man Vincent Smothers; his alleged partner, identified by Detroit News sources as Ernest Davis; and a third man who has not been named.

State police in May turned over their investigation into the Sanford case, which began in May 2015. When they filed their investigative report, state police also sought perjury charges against former Detroit police official James Tolbert.

State detectives say Tolbert told them during their investigation he had sketched a diagram of the crime scene, which contradicted his testimony during a July 13, 2010, evidentiary hearing that Sanford had drawn the map. Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the sketch was a “major building block” in her case against Sanford.

Prosecutors have until July 13 to bring charges against Tolbert before the six-year statute of limitations for perjury expires.

Outside, internal probe

Worthy said she would return the murder warrants back to state police for further investigation. Until that review is over, Craig said internal affairs officers won’t interview key witnesses for the internal probe.

“We don’t want to step in and over what the prosecutor is trying to do,” Craig said. “She has not yet said if anybody is going to be charged criminally, and were we to start interviewing employees now that might undermine the criminal investigation.

“Normally, we wouldn’t launch an internal investigation until the prosecutor’s criminal investigation is complete. But because there’s so much material to review (in the 117-page state police report), we want to at least get started gathering all the background.”

Police Commissioner Reginald Crawford last week asked Craig to provide the department’s policy governing interrogating witnesses.

“I wanted to make sure the department has policies in place that will ensure this kind of thing doesn’t ever happen again,” said Crawford, a former Detroit police officer and current Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy who has spent 39 years in law enforcement. “The chief was very supportive of that, and said he wants to get to the bottom of what happened, too.”

Section 203.9-6.2 of the Detroit Police Manual, updated in 2014, lays out how police should handle juvenile suspects.

“In the absence of a parent or guardian, a juvenile may be questioned and may provide statements, if reasonable assurances can be made (and documented) that the juvenile fully understands his or her constitutional rights.”

Case interrogation criticized

Several aspects of the handling of the case have been questioned by Sanford’s attorneys.

Sanford gave erroneous information in his first interview to Russell, but when he was questioned hours later, the teen’s story changed to better match elements of the crime, according to police reports and court records.

Sanford’s second interview with police was videotaped, but it only consists of Russell reading off items to Sanford, who answers “yes” or “no.” There is no record of what was said between the officer and the suspect when Sanford altered key facts of his story, according to a video of the interview.

During his second interview with Sanford, Russell didn’t read Sanford his Miranda rights until 10 p.m. — long after the interview had started, according to court documents. That’s a violation of Detroit Police department policy and the Constitution, said law professor Randolph Stone, former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section.

“Sgt. Russell’s failure to read Davontae his Miranda rights prior to interrogating him was a clear violation of Miranda, precisely the kind of two-step tactic (question first, Mirandize only after obtaining a statement) that the United States Supreme Court condemned,” Stone wrote in an affidavit filed last year in Wayne Circuit Court. Stone was hired by the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic to review the Sanford case.

“Given Davontae’s vulnerabilities, Sgt. Russell should have taken special precautions,” Stone wrote. “Instead, he did not follow the precautions required by his department’s own policy regarding interrogation of juvenile suspects.”

Russell was given permission to question Sanford first by his grandmother, Pamela Sanford; and for the second interview, his mother, Taminko Sanford. But Russell did not get a waiver of their right to be present.

“There’s a call for justice for Davontae Sanford, and those involved in this case who didn’t follow the rules should be dealt with,” Crawford said.

Craig agreed. “It’s all about accountability. We need our people to follow the rules; if they don’t, how can we ask the public to do the same?”


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN