Davontae Sanford’s twisted road to freedom

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Davontae Sanford, right, listens to family attorney Valerie Newman outside his childhood home in Detroit. An eight-year struggle to exonerate him of murder was stymied until he finally was freed.

A conversation with a cop sent Davontae Sanford’s life spiraling out of control.

It was Sept. 17, 2007. Four people had been gunned down in a drug house on Runyon, two blocks from the 14-year-old Sanford’s home on Detroit’s east side.

When the teen ventured outside to see what was happening, he said he was approached by a Detroit Police homicide detective, who asked what he knew about the killings.

That question and the police’s actions afterward eventually led to Sanford confessing and pleading guilty to murders he didn’t commit. Sanford says he was a naive kid whose confession and guilty plea were coerced by police and his defense attorney.

“I was young; I was just lost in space,” he said. “I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on; it all happened so fast. I got arrested, and ... eight months later I was in prison.”

Sanford, 23, said his first night in prison in April, 2008 was “like ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ with all the bars, and it’s really, really loud … it smells horrible; everyone talking and screaming. Once all the lights went off, that’s when it really hit me.

“I started crying.”

Davontae Sanford's road to freedom: An interactive study

For Inmate #684070, it would be a long road to freedom.

An eight-year struggle by family, lawyers and supporters to exonerate Sanford was repeatedly stymied by prosecutors who insisted his conviction was solid.

The case became a national cause for innocence advocates who called Sanford’s conviction a miscarriage of justice.

“This is the most compelling case you’ll ever see, because it shows how the system can totally fail a young boy,” said David Moran of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which represented Sanford’s appeal. “It’s the thickest file we’ve ever had here at the Michigan Innocence Clinic, and this case had some of the most complex issues we’ve ever handled.

“So many things went wrong at so many levels, and so many actors were involved, that it’s really an indictment on the entire criminal justice system in Wayne County. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

As Sanford worked toward gaining his freedom, he said there were countless disappointments along the way.

“Sometimes when I would go to court, I would think, ‘this is almost over.’ It looked like, ‘it’s almost there. It’s looking good.’ Then: The judge denied this motion … this is being appealed. It was frustrating at times.”

Sanford’s luck changed in May, when Michigan State Police submitted the results of their 11-month reinvestigation of the case: They said someone else had committed the killings for which Sanford was convicted.

The findings set off a whirlwind of developments in Sanford’s case, and after fighting for eight years, Sanford’s team was finally rewarded when he walked out of the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia on June 8, smiling and squinting into the sun. He was free.

One of Sanford’s attorneys, Valerie Newman, said she cried when she learned Sanford would be released.

“He’s suffered so much,” she said hours after getting the news. “He went into jail when he was 14; prison when he was 15 years old. He grew up in prison.”

Wayne Circuit Case #07-015018-01-FC, The People v Davontae Sanford, was officially closed July 19, when Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan granted prosecutors’ June 8 motion to drop charges against Sanford. Court officials said Sullivan spent more than a month reviewing unspecified materials in the case.

Prosecutors said they were prompted to drop the charges against Sanford when state police submitted a request seeking perjury charges against former Detroit police official James Tolbert. State investigators said the former Flint police chief lied under oath when he testified Sanford had drawn a map of the Runyon crime scene.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy said evidence of Tolbert’s alleged perjury was strong enough to release Sanford, but she said Tuesday she didn’t think there was enough evidence to bring perjury charges.

Although Sanford has been free for more than a month, there still are unresolved questions in the case, including: If the teen didn’t commit the Runyon killings, who did?

Sanford’s attorneys say police, prosecutors and the judge were provided the answer two weeks after Sanford went to prison, when hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to killing 12 people, including the four on Runyon.

State Police detectives in their report also sought murder charges against Smothers and two accomplices in connection with the Runyon killings. The murder warrant requests are under review, Worthy said.

‘Just sign your initials’

Sanford remembers what his aunt served for dinner the night his life changed nine years ago: A roast with potatoes and carrots.

When Sanford returned home, his mother told him four people had just been killed on Runyon.

“News vans and police cars had that area blocked off. I start walking up the street … that’s when … (Sgt. Mike Russell) started asking me questions … have I heard or seen anything.”

“I told them I didn’t know nothing; that’s when they said they wanted to question me. They brought me back to my house to get a consent form from my grandmother.”

Tolbert, then a commander in charge of the Major Crimes Section, drove Sanford around for about two hours, according to Sanford and state police.

“(Tolbert) wanted to know who could have done something like this; what guys were doing in the neighborhood, that kind of stuff.”

Why was he being interviewed?

“I asked them ... They said, ‘this is something we need to do.’ ”

At about 3 a.m., Tolbert dropped Sanford off on Runyon, where police technicians tested his hands and clothing for gunshot residue. The test was negative.

“We went to Coney Island, got something to eat. We went back to 1300 Beaubien (former police headquarters); they let me get on the computer. (They were) friendly. It wasn’t hostile at all.”

Sanford said he was pressured into telling police something, so he made up a story about four older teens from his neighborhood. Police cleared the four after their alibis checked out.

“My first statement was took. They all left, and I spent the night at 1300 Beaubien, sleeping on the couch. I was woken up by (homicide investigator) Barbara Simon. She had my statement; she was like ‘sign your name here, here, here, here.’ I told her, ‘I can’t read.’ She said ‘just sign your initials.’ ”

The case against Sanford, center, became a national cause for innocence advocates.

In the system

Officers then took Sanford home. Later that day, police returned to his house.

“They told my mother, ‘we think your son knows something; we think your son’s lying; he needs to tell the truth.’ And I told them repeatedly: ‘I don’t know nothing. I don’t know nothing.’ ”

Sanford said Russell told his mom: “We just want to talk to him one more time. I promise you we’re going to bring him home. I promise you we’re going to bring your son back.”

Sanford said Russell and Tolbert told him to sign a typewritten statement saying he was involved in the killings.

“Once I sign the statement, he was like ‘I’m about to take you to the precinct so we can get this on camera. Once we do that I’m taking you home.

“Once they got me there, they fingerprinted me, took pictures. And it’s still not registering to me what is really going on. After the interview was over, I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m about to go home; this is it.’ When I got back in the back of the car, (Russell) was like, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but I can’t take you home. I gotta take you to juvenile.”

Detroit police have launched an internal investigation into how detectives handled the case, police Chief James Craig said.

Russell, who now runs the Detroit Police Arson Unit, defended his work in the Sanford case. “I did nothing improper, so I’m not worried about anything,” he told The Detroit News. “I handled everything by the book.”

Earliest release date: 2046

After Sanford was charged with first-degree murder, he said his attorney Robert Slameka convinced him to plead guilty to second-degree murder, and to seek a bench trial.

“(He said), ‘you’re a black kid from the ghetto; these white people from the suburbs are gonna come in here and they’re gonna find you guilty.’ ”

Sanford said Slameka, who has been disciplined several times for failing to properly serve clients, said he was friends with the judge, and promised Sanford he’d get a light sentence. Sullivan gave him 37-90 years. Slameka has not returned several phone calls seeking comment.

As he struggled through his first night in prison, Sanford said it was still difficult to grasp what had happened to him.

“I kept looking at my papers with my sentencing, and my earliest release date is 2046. It was hard trying to comprehend everything ... at the time it was still moving so fast.”

Sanford said he was able to make it through the 8 years by focusing on getting out someday. “I knew there were people fighting for me. And I knew one day I’d get out ... I just didn’t know when.”

When asked if he has any faith in the criminal justice system after what he’s been through, Sanford said: “Not really. But you have to remember: People in the system worked hard to make sure I got out, like the state police and my lawyers.

“So I don’t really believe in the system, but there’s good people in the system who do care about you.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN