Sanford says he still feels chained by unresolved case

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Davontae Sanford was released from prison more than a month ago after serving eight years for murders he didn’t commit, but he said Wednesday the criminal justice system is still victimizing him.

Sanford, who was sent to prison at age 15, said he’s hankering to go with his family to Cedar Point — “but I can’t even leave the state,” he said, because charges for a 2007 quadruple homicide have not yet been officially dropped.

“Having these charges hanging over my head ... it’s like I came home with chains on still.”

During an interview in a Detroit law office, Sanford said he was “devastated” when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced Tuesday she wouldn’t seek perjury charges against former Detroit police official James Tolbert.

Tolbert allegedly lied under oath when he said Sanford drew a crime scene sketch that was part of the evidence used to convict him. According to a Michigan State Police report in May, Tolbert told detectives he drew the map, contradicting his July 13, 2010, testimony. That prompted detectives to request the perjury charge.

The six-year statute of limitations on the charge expired Wednesday.

“Every time I see the police I get nervous, worrying, thinking ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ I think that’s crazy,” Sanford said. “You let me come home because you feel like there was a wrong committed, but you still won’t drop the charges? That sends two different messages.”

Worthy said Sanford’s refusal to testify against Tolbert was the main reason she didn’t seek charges against Tolbert, the former Flint police chief. She said Sanford was “unavailable” to testify, and said he was “the most significant barrier to charging this case.”

Sanford said Worthy omitted vital information from her statement.

“I told (prosecutors) once the charges were dropped I’d be willing to testify (against Tolbert),” Sanford said. “She knows this ... I just can’t believe she would say that the reason why she didn’t charge (Tolbert) is because I didn’t cooperate. That was a lie.”

Assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email Wednesday: “Prosecutor Worthy has stated all of the legal reasons why (her office) was not able to charge Tolbert and why Sanford was a crucial witness in the case. The (press) release quotes his lawyer’s letter saying he would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege until the case was dismissed.

“We were not able to issue charges that we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt in the case while Sanford was asserting his Fifth Amendment privilege.”

Sanford insisted he was eager to testify against Tolbert. “This man literally ruined my life,” he said.

Sanford said he had been shown pictures of where the four bodies were positioned in a home on Runyon, and that Tolbert drew the layout of the house and furniture, before advising the teen where to draw the bodies.

Tolbert has not responded to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

As part of the state police’s report on their 11-month investigation into the killings, detectives also asked for murder charges against hit man Vincent Smothers, who confessed to the crime, and his two alleged accomplices.

Worthy said at a June 9 press conference she would return the murder warrant requests to state police for more investigation, but as of Wednesday prosecutors still hadn’t sent back the request, MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner said.

‘More is required’

Worthy said she couldn’t charge Tolbert because two of the three people who were present when the crime scene map was drawn — Sanford, Tolbert — were not available to testify.

A third officer, homicide Sgt. Michael Russell, was also present, but, Worthy said, he consistently has maintained Sanford drew the map.

“When asked he said that he would not change his previous statements and testimony,” Worthy said.

Bill Proctor, a former television reporter and director of Proving Innocence, an advocacy group for the wrongfully-convicted, said Worthy could have charged Tolbert if she’d wanted to.

“They have had in their hands, (information from) an outside police agency, the Michigan State Police ... saying that there was a … high-ranking police officer responsible for the misconduct that led to this young man’s incarceration,” said Proctor, who accompanied Sanford during Wednesday’s interview.

“She should be ashamed of herself for once again pointing to a child for her office’s failures; and then the failure to move quickly to right a wrong that took his teenage life away from him.”

Worthy said more is required to prove perjury than merely showing a statement made outside court is inconsistent with testimony; intent to lie under oath must be proved, she said.

Awaiting dismissal

Sanford said he believes Worthy doesn’t want to charge Tolbert because, “if he lied on my case, how many other cases (did he lie about)? She don’t want to charge him, because if she was to charge him, she’s scared of what he might say, and who he might point fingers at.

“This man (Tolbert) can go about his life, and just go do whatever he wants. I can’t do that. I can’t go out of town. It’s been a month and they still haven’t dropped the charges.”

Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan’s approval of prosecutors’ June 8 motion to dismiss the charges against Sanford has been held up to allow him to study elements of the case, Third Circuit Court General Counsel Richard Lynch said. He did not say what material the judge was perusing.

Sanford said he won’t be able to truly relax until Sullivan issues an order dropping the charges.

“I’m trying to find some normalcy. I’m going to school; got a little part time job. But it’s hard when I keep having to deal with this ... it’s very painful. I’m trying to get there where I can say ‘OK, I’ve made it.’ I’m not there yet, but with the people I got behind me, I know I’ll be there soon.”

Sanford said he’s dreaming of the day when charges are finally dropped.

“Me, my little sister, my little brother, and everybody (will) ... pack three or four cars and ... go to Cedar Point,” he said. “That’s when I’ll know the chains are gone, and I’m out.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN