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Appellate court: Davontae Sanford not eligible to be paid for time spent in juvenile facility

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled Davontae Sanford isn't entitled to be compensated for time he spent in a juvenile facility, and his attorney said he plans to appeal the decision to the state's highest court.

The appellate court announced Wednesday it unanimously ruled against Sanford's request to be paid for 198 days he spent in the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility in 2007-08 while he awaited trial on murder charges.

Davontae Sanford is not eligible to be compensated for time he spent in a juvenile detention center while awaiting trial for slayings for which he was later exonerated.

Under the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Act of 2016, wrongfully convicted ex-prisoners are entitled to $50,000 for every year spent in prison. Although Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has maintained Sanford is not innocent, he was among the first people to be paid under the Wrongful Imprisonment Act.

The issue the state Court of Appeals weighed is whether an exonerated ex-prisoner is entitled to be compensated for time spent in facilities not under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Corrections. The appellate court ruled people who were locked up in non-MDOC facilities are not eligible to be compensated by the state.

Sanford in January 2018 was paid $408,000 from the exoneration fund. He also has sued the city and police department in federal court. That trial is scheduled to begin June 4.

Attorneys for Sanford sought an additional $27,000 for the time he'd spent in the juvenile facility, although the appellate court pointed out the statute's language only allows for payment of people who spent time in a Michigan Department of Corrections facility.

The statute mandates payment for "(an) individual convicted under the law of this state and subsequently imprisoned in a state correctional facility for 1 or more crimes that he or she did not commit."

According to the four-page ruling: "Plaintiff cites the dictionary definitions of the words 'imprison' and 'prison' to argue that any confinement is compensable under (the 2016 act, which) begins by requiring a plaintiff to show that he or she was 'sentenced to a term of imprisonment in a state correctional facility” for the crimes for which he or she was convicted.

"Plaintiff’s reliance on the more expansive dictionary definitions of 'imprison' and 'prison' exceeds the bounds of this provision, thereby undermining the plainly expressed legislative intent," the ruling said. "Therefore, plaintiff’s reliance on these dictionary definitions is unavailing."

William Goodman, Sanford's attorney, said he plans to appeal the decision.

"The law was intended to compensate victims of wrongful convictions and wrongful incarcerations, and the Court of Appeals mistakenly read an interpretation of the statute that wasn't there," Goodman said. "We intent to appeal this to the Michigan Supreme Court.

"(The appellate court) interpreted the law to say someone has to be in an MDOC facility in order to get recovery, but ... imprisonment under the dictionary definition and legal definition means being locked up in a cell — whether that's a juvenile facility or a state prison," Goodman said.

State officials say the fund to pay exonerated ex-inmates is nearly depleted. More than a dozen people who were freed from prison after it was determined they'd been wrongfully convicted are still awaiting payment by the state Court of Claims.

Sanford was 14 when he claims he was tricked into confessing to a Sept. 17, 2007, quadruple homicide in a drug house on Detroit's east side. Sanford, now 26, also says his attorney Robert Slameka — who has since been disbarred for unethical behavior — coerced him into pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

Sanford was convicted as an adult and sentenced to 37-90 years in prison. Two weeks after he went to prison, Detroit police arrested hit man Vincent Smothers, who confessed to 12 murders-for-hire, including the quadruple homicide for which Sanford had been convicted.

Innocence advocates fought for years for Sanford's release. He served more than eight years before he was freed in June 2016, when Michigan State Police investigators determined former Detroit police Cmdr. James Tolbert lied about who sketched a diagram of the crime scene.

During the investigation, Tolbert told state detectives he had drawn the diagram, contradicting earlier testimony in which he said Sanford had done the drawing, which showed where the four bodies lay, and other elements of the crime scene.

Tolbert was not charged with perjury, however, because the statute of limitations ran out before Sanford's case was vacated. His attorneys said they didn't want him testifying against Tolbert before charges were officially dropped, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she couldn't charge Tolbert without Sanford's testimony.

Worthy maintains Sanford's guilt, saying she only dropped the charges because the question of who drew the crime scene sketch tainted the case.

 Tolbert in January was hired as a deputy police chief in Highland Park.
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