Sanford’s murder charges officially dropped

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Wayne Circuit Court Case #07-015018-01-FC, the People v Davontae Sanford, is closed — although the judge who signed the order said he did so with trepidation.

Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan on Tuesday granted a June 8 motion by prosecutors to dismiss murder charges against Sanford, who spent eight years in prison, beginning as a young teenager, for a 2007 quadruple homicide he didn’t commit.

Sullivan said in his seven-page order he was reluctant to approve the prosecutors’ motion because he still has concerns about the case, but deferred to the prosecutors’ decision to dismiss the charges.

The judge ordered the case dismissed without prejudice, meaning if the charges against Sanford are refiled, the double jeopardy rule would not apply.

The judge said there were unanswered questions surrounding several pieces of evidence used to convict Sanford, adding there is “taint on both sides” of the case.

Sanford’s attorneys replied Tuesday there is no taint regarding Sanford’s innocence.

“Despite whatever is in Sullivan’s order dismissing all criminal charges against Davontae, there’s overwhelming evidence of his innocence that we know of — and we haven’t even started the civil discovery process yet,” said Julie Hurwitz of the Detroit law firm Goodman Hurwitz.

Hurwitz added her firm and the New York law firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin are preparing to file a civil rights lawsuit against Detroit and Wayne County if a settlement isn’t reached.

Sanford, who was 14 when the killings occurred, said he wants answers about how his case was handled at each step in the criminal justice system.

“(Police and prosecutors) tell everyone they send to jail they should take responsibility for their actions,” he told The News prior to Tuesday’s decision. “Well, they need to take responsibility for what they did. I was innocent, and they did me wrong. Why don’t they have to answer for what they did?”

Sanford once confessed to the killings and later pleaded guilty, but he said he was a confused kid who was coerced by police and his defense attorney.

Sullivan said despite his concerns about the case, he supported prosecutors’ decision to drop charges.

“The determination of whether to proceed or not to proceed is a matter vested by law within the province of the prosecutor,” he said of prosecutors’ decision to drop the case. “This court will not second-guess that judgment.

“This case is thick with speculation, conjecture, confusion and unanswered questions; far thinner on evidence,” Sullivan said. “The confusion needs to be clarified.”

Among the unanswered questions in the case: If Sanford didn’t commit the Sept. 17, 2007, murders on Runyon, who did?

Michigan State Police believe they have the answer. They say hit man Vincent Smothers and his alleged accomplices committed the killings.

Ongoing issues

Four people were killed in the living room of a house owned by Michael Robinson, whom police say sold marijuana. According to Smothers, he was paid to kill Robinson; the other three victims — Dangelo McNoriell, Brian Dixon and Nicole Chapman — were collateral damage. Another woman, Valerie Glover, was shot five times but survived.

Sullivan’s motion was granted six weeks after Wayne County prosecutors filed it, the same day the judge vacated Sanford’s sentence. The decision to drop charges came after state police submitted to prosecutors the results of their 11-month investigation into the quadruple homicide.

State police submitted warrant requests for Smothers and his alleged partners who allegedly paid Smothers to commit the Runyon murders, along with several others.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email Tuesday prosecutors are still reviewing the murder warrant requests, and that they’ll be returned for more investigation. The prosecutor’s office didn’t offer anything further Tuesday.

State police also submitted a perjury warrant request for former Detroit police official James Tolbert, after state detectives said he lied under oath when he testified Sanford drew a crime scene map. Tolbert contradicted his testimony during an interview with state detectives, when he told them he had drawn the map.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said evidence of the alleged perjury was strong enough to drop charges against Sanford, but she said last week there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Tolbert with perjury. The statute of limitations expired July 13, meaning Tolbert will not stand trial for allegedly lying about evidence that convicted Sanford.

The delay in dropping the charges may have contributed to Tolbert not being charged with perjury. Worthy said the main reason she declined to charge Tolbert was Sanford’s refusal to testify. Sanford said he was eager to testify against Tolbert, but wanted to wait until the charges against him were dropped.

“Of course,” Sanford said when asked if he would’ve been willing to testify against Tolbert. “This man literally ruined my life.”

‘Maybe I forgot’

Sullivan wrote in his order the state police investigation left open several loose ends.

“The unanswered questions cloud rather than clarify the case,” he wrote.

Sullivan wrote some of the questions were unanswered because Smothers refused to testify.

“Smothers was subpoenaed to testify in court twice,” Sullivan wrote. “Smothers refused to testify both times.”

But the judge didn’t mention in the order he barred Smothers from testifying when he tried a third time.

Smothers invoked his Fifth Amendment right the first two times he was subpoenaed but wanted to waive attorney-client privilege to allow his lawyer, Gabi Silver, to testify on his behalf. Sullivan denied the request because the hit man would not be subject to cross-examination if a proxy testified.

Smothers’ former attorney, Silver, said Tuesday that Smothers initially was reluctant to testify, but later changed his mind.

“His lawyer at the time (James Howath, who could not be reached Tuesday for comment) advised him not to testify because of criminal liability,” Silver said. “He waived attorney-client privilege to allow me to testify in his behalf, but the judge wouldn’t allow it.

“After that, Smothers came forward and said, ‘I’ll testify.’ He told me: ‘Prison is the worst place I’ve ever been and I’m here for (things) I did; I can’t even imagine being in here for (things) I didn’t do.’ But the judge wouldn’t allow him to testify.”

In a Feb. 12, 2012, order, Sullivan wrote: “No proof of Smothers’ proposed testimony accompanied the motion (to allow the hit man to testify). Smothers’ statement was admitted into evidence predicated on his assertion of his right to not testify at two different times.

“The motion to present (Smothers’) testimony, for the third time, is denied,” Sullivan wrote.

When asked by The News Tuesday why he omitted in his order dropping the Sanford charges that he had barred Smothers’ testimony, Sullivan said: “Your information is wrong ... I never barred Vincent Smothers from testifying.”

When Sullivan was told later Tuesday that The News had a copy of the order barring Smothers’ testimony, Sullivan said: “Maybe I forgot about it. I’ll have to look at the order and get back to you.

“I went through a lot of material quickly,” Sullivan added. “(The state police report) was dropped off June 24, and I got the order out as fast as I could.

“... you can keep opening a case, and reopening it and reopening it,” Sullivan said. “Would (Smothers) testify? We had no way of knowing.”

Hurwitz said attorneys for Sanford are prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit.

“If the city of Detroit and the county of Wayne want to step up and do the right thing without dragging Davontae through years of litigation, we’re certainly open to what they have to say,” she said.

“We know he’s innocent, and they know he’s innocent, and a jury will undoubtedly know he’s innocent, and that his rights were violated.”

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN