Judge: Case against Davontae Sanford based on 'lies'

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Davontae Sanford appears at a July 2016 news conference.

Detroit — The judge presiding over Davontae Sanford's federal lawsuit last week denied Detroit's motion to have the complaint thrown out of court and barred the city's expert witnesses from testifying.

In ruling Friday on the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge David Lawson said the murder case against Sanford was based on "lies that were told over and over" by the defendants in the suit, former Detroit police commander James Tolbert and homicide detective Michael Russell.

A day earlier, Lawson ruled several of the city's expert witnesses would not be allowed to testify, in part because he said the city didn't comply with the rules of disclosure.

City attorneys declined to comment. Sanford's attorney William Goodman told The Detroit News: "We have nothing to add, other than what the judge has already observed.”

Attorneys for Sanford in September 2017 filed the lawsuit, which doesn't specify the amount of damages sought. The suit claims Tolbert and Russell violated Sanford's civil rights.

Sanford was arrested at age 14 in September 2007 for a quadruple homicide inside a drug house on Runyon Street on Detroit's east side. He insists he is innocent, and claims his confession and guilty plea were coerced by Russell and his attorney, Robert Slameka, who has since been disbarred for unethical behavior.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped the charges against Sanford in June 2016. Her decision came after a Michigan State Police investigation found Tolbert had lied during court hearings by saying Sanford had drawn a map of the crime scene, when he later told state investigators he'd drawn it.

"Tolbert and Russell both were present during the interview when a sketch of the crime scene was created; Russell was sitting beside Sanford the entire time while the drawing was made," the judge wrote in his 27-page ruling. "Sanford did not create the diagram. Tolbert admits that the drawing was done by him, and that he spent several minutes drawing out the detailed sketch in his own hand ...

"There is ample evidence in the record demonstrating that Tolbert fabricated the sketch of the crime scene that formed a critical piece of the evidence used to charge and convict Sanford, and Russell presented that evidence to the prosecutor, explicitly representing that it was created entirely by Sanford, with no input from the defendants," the judge said. 

"These are the two central, crucial lies that were told over and over by Russell and Tolbert before, during, and after the trial," the judge said. "The first proposition is demonstrably and indisputably false: Tolbert now candidly admits that he drew the layout of the sketch and Sanford only drew the bodies on the sketch Tolbert created.

A sketch of a 2007 Detroit crime scene, which then-Detroit police official James Tolbert said was drawn by 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, but which Tolbert later said he'd drawn, prompting state police to seek perjury charges, although prosecutors declined to charge Tolbert after the statute of limitations ran out.

"Russell admits he was present when that was done," Lawson said. "Both claim that they were 'mistaken' in their recall of how the sketch was made.

"The (defendants') position that there is some doubt about the establishment of (Sanford's) right not to be charged and convicted based on false and fabricated evidence borders on the frivolous," Lawson said.

Lawson noted that Tolbert, a commander at the time, took a lot of interest in the Runyon Street murders for someone of his rank.

"Due to his supervisory role, Tolbert was 'never directly investigating homicides,'
 the judge said, quoting Tolbert from an earlier deposition. "However, when the
Runyon Street murders occurred, he was on the scene within hours. Tolbert
subsequently spent hours at the scene investigating and attempting to piece together what had happened.

"Tolbert testified that they drove around in the police car with Sanford for some length of time, during which he asked Sanford questions," Lawson said. "Tolbert and Russell both were in the car, along with another police investigator and Sanford. During that initial interview in the car, Sanford did not make any admissions concerning the crime.”

After Tolbert and Russell drove around with Sanford, Russell interviewed the teen the night of the murders and the next day. Russell falsely told Sanford blood from the crime scene had been found on his shoes.

During the first interrogation, Sanford wrote out a confession; however, Lawson noted: "Numerous details of the written statement signed by Sanford later turned out to be false."

Interactive: Davontae Sanford's road to freedom

The next day, a video of Russell's interview with Sanford shows the cop providing the teen with details of the crime, and Sanford agreeing. Russell also reportedly told Sanford to confess "so I can get you home so you can be in school
tomorrow.” Instead, Sanford was arrested.

"In addition to the false promises of leniency, the plaintiff has advanced evidence on which a jury readily could conclude that other circumstances of the interrogation also rendered the questioning coercive, where Russell questioned a 14-year old suspect about a heinous crime over many hours, without a parent or guardian present," Lawson said.

"The evidence amply supports Sanford’s allegations that Russell made false promises of leniency to Sanford, which Russell knew would not be fulfilled," Lawson said.

The judge pointed out that two weeks after Sanford was sentenced to 37-90 years in prison following his second-degree murder plea, police arrested hit man Vincent Smothers, who confessed to 12 murders — including the four that had been blamed on Sanford.

Although Tolbert and Russell knew about Smothers' confession, the hit man "was never further interrogated about the Runyon Street killings," Lawson said.

"Tolbert was informed about Smothers’s confessions to the multiple homicides in 2008, and he acknowledged that the failure fully to investigate Smothers’s admitted involvement in the Runyon Street murders was an 'extraordinary investigative lapse,' the judge said, citing Tolbert's earlier deposition.

"Tolbert also testified that Russell was aware of Smothers’s confession, and he admitted that, as the investigator in the Runyon Street case, Russell had an obligation fully to explore Smothers's involvement," Lawson said.

"Tolbert said that if there was an investigation of Smothers’s involvement, it would have been documented in the homicide investigation file, and he conceded that he could not explain 'why there’s not a single document in the Runyon homicide file relating to an investigation into Smothers.'

"Russell admitted that when he was informed of Smothers’s involvement in April 2008, he 'did [not] do anything' to follow up on the information or investigate it further," Lawson said, referencing Russell's deposition.

Also Friday, Lawson rejected the city's argument that Tolbert and Russell should have immunity and be exempt from the lawsuit.

"The defendants contend that they can avoid this lawsuit by testimonial absolute immunity," Lawson said. "But that principle has no bearing on the fabrication of evidence claims, which involved pretrial, non-testimonial conduct that prompted the prosecutor’s decisions to initiate and continue the case."

In his Thursday ruling, Lawson barred several of the city's expert witnesses from testifying in the trial, which has been postponed multiple times. A final pretrial conference is scheduled June 14.

"The defendants, whose attorney acknowledged at a hearing that he did not retain experts until the day before the disclosure deadline, have not complied with their disclosure obligation, and they have not shown that their noncompliance was harmless or substantially justified," Lawson said.

After Sanford was released from prison, he moved to Arizona, where he was charged last year with aggravated assault after firing an AR-15 rifle near his Phoenix home. He pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court to reckless discharge of a firearm, and received probation.

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