Killing case in limbo year after Sanford’s release

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than a year after Michigan State Police said three men were responsible for a 2007 quadruple homicide for which teenager Davontae Sanford was convicted, no charges have been issued.


The absence of charges means Leroy Payne, who state police say contracted several murders-for-hire, remains free, while a second suspect in the killings, Ernest Davis, could be released from prison on an unrelated crime in less than a year.

Davontae Sanford's road to freedom: An interactive study

The delay is the latest hiccup in a case that attracted national attention and sparked criticism by innocence advocates who accused Detroit police and Wayne County prosecutors of pinning four murders on an innocent teen despite evidence others were involved.

Prosecutors blame state police for the delay, saying they turned in an incomplete investigation, a charge state police officials deny.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has rejected Sanford’s claim of innocence, pointing out he confessed and pleaded guilty to the killings.

She has said she was forced to drop the charges against Sanford because the evidence in his case was tainted by a state police allegation that a Detroit police official had committed perjury. She has insisted the dropping of charges does not mean Sanford is innocent.

Sanford’s attorneys have filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit with the Michigan Court of Claims, accusing Detroit police of lying to get a conviction.

Sanford was 14 when he was arrested for the Sept. 17, 2007, killings of Michael Robinson, Dangelo McNoriell, Brian Dixon and Nicole Chapman in a drug house on Runyon on Detroit’s east side.

When police initially questioned Sanford about the killings, he provided erroneous information, including the type of weapons used and the type of clothing worn by the assailants, which did not match eyewitness accounts.

During a second interview, recorded on video, a police officer read aloud the correct facts of the case to Sanford, who answered “yes” to each element.

Sanford claims he was tricked by police into confessing to the crime and later by his attorney into pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

Two weeks after Sanford went to prison, Vincent Smothers was arrested and confessed he was a hit man who had been hired to kill 12 people, including the four on Runyon.


In his videotaped confession to Detroit police detectives, Smothers provided accurate information about the Runyon killings, including the type of weapons used, details about a discussion with a survivor of the bloodbath as well as a shootout with a neighbor as he and his alleged partner fled the crime scene.

After Sanford had served nearly nine years in prison, prosecutors in June 2016 dropped the charges against him, and he was freed, following the release of a state police report that named Smothers and his alleged partner, Ernest Davis, as the real killers.

According to the report, Smothers told detectives a man named Leroy Payne had paid him to carry out the hit.

“Smothers explained that the Runyon Street homicides were one of several contract killings that were contracted by a Leroy Payne,” the state police report said.

Sanford’s attorney, William Goodman, said Worthy has avoided charging anyone with the murders to keep defense attorneys from scrutinizing how her office handled the case.

“This whole case is a huge embarrassment for her, and she has refused to take a look at how her office became involved in covering up a wrongful conviction and not apprehending the real criminals,” Goodman said.

Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller rejected Goodman’s claim.

“This allegation could not be further from the truth,” she said. “We are continuing to work on the case. Going forward, we must establish competent evidence that will allow us to charge a suspect beyond a reasonable doubt in court.”

When charges were dropped

State police in May 2016 turned in the report on the four homicides for which Sanford was convicted, months after Worthy requested the agency investigate.

Worthy announced she was dropping charges against Sanford two weeks after getting the state police report because the investigation found former Detroit Police Cmdr. James Tolbert had committed perjury when he testified Sanford had drawn a map of the Runyon crime scene.

Two months after Worthy received the state police report, the statute of limitations for perjury expired and Tolbert, who also served as Flint police chief, was not charged. Worthy said she declined to bring charges against Tolbert because Sanford refused to testify.

Sanford’s attorneys said he didn’t testify because Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan didn’t officially dismiss the murder charges until after the statute of limitations for Tolbert had expired.

When Worthy dropped the charges against Sanford, she also said there were unspecified holes in the state police investigation that needed more work.

Prosecutors waited eight months before returning the investigation to state police — but according to state police Lt. Michael Shaw, more than half of the questions asked by prosecutors had already been answered in the initial report.

Miller replied: “Information that we requested was either not addressed at all (or) in some instances answered in such an incomplete fashion that it was not helpful. That is why we had to ask for further investigation.”

Worthy said state police are responsible for the delay: “We have been waiting for the Michigan State Police to complete the extensive investigatory work that we asked them to do,” she said.

State police requested a meeting, which was held last week, Miller said.

“In summary, a large part of the items that (the prosecutor’s office) requested to be investigated by MSP are incomplete,” she said.

Shaw said the meeting was intended to “discuss our differences and continue to move forward on this.”

He added: “We do not think the media is the place to discuss those differences.”

Beyond Smothers

As police and prosecutors wrangle over the issue, Payne — the man state detectives said ordered several murders-for-hire — remains free.

Payne’s lawyer, Mark Magidson, told The Detroit News he hadn’t spoken with his client “in a long time,” and said he’s told authorities to contact him “if there’s anything they need from me.”

During the state investigation, detectives reached out to Magidson, who wrote back: “Mr. Payne is going to decline the invitation to talk to you.”

It’s unclear whether Payne has ever been questioned by police or prosecutors in connection with the Runyon killings, or other hits Smothers claimed he arranged.

Davis, Smothers’ alleged accomplice in the Runyon killings, was convicted in 2013 of assault with intent to commit great bodily harm less than murder for shooting a security guard. He was sentenced to 3-15 years and could be released from prison in 11 months.

Despite Smothers’ confession that he’d committed premeditated murders, which each carry a life sentence, prosecutors cut a deal, allowing him to plead guilty to second-degree murder for eight of the killings he’d confessed to committing — but not the four on Runyon. He was sentenced to 50 to 100 years in prison.

At the time, prosecutors said they entered the plea deal to avoid spending taxpayer money on eight separate trials.

Smothers’ attorney, Gabi Silver, declined to comment, and Davis’ attorney, Steven E. Scharg, did not return a phone call from The News.

Although Smothers and Davis have not been charged in the Runyon murders, the state police report pointed to evidence suggesting they were involved:

■Shell casings found at the Runyon scene matched an AK-47 rifle Smothers used in other killings for which he was convicted.

■Smothers told police he used a .40 caliber pistol he’d stolen from the Runyon scene to kill Rose Cobb, wife of Detroit Police Sgt. David Cobb, who later committed suicide. A photo of the pistol was found on the cellphone of the Runyon homeowner and reported target for the hit, Michael Robinson.

■Smothers also told police where the weapon allegedly used by Davis could be found; it was hidden in the closet of one of Davis’ relatives. A ballistic test showed the .45 caliber pistol was used in the Runyon murders.

“What you’re looking at is the consistent failure to respond to facts that the prosecutor’s office has chosen to ignore,” said Bill Proctor, director of Proving Innocence, an advocacy group for wrongly convicted defendants.

“This prosecutor chose to cut a deal with Smothers when he gave them a complete confession on a silver platter,” Proctor said. “He laid it out for them, told them how the murders were committed, and they ignored it. The state police then told them who did it, and the prosecutors are continuing to ignore it.”

Worthy insisted she has to follow the law.

“We will never charge people because others want us to,” she said. “We must have competent evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”