Cop off homicide squad amid Davontae Sanford probe

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Detroit police Lt. Michael Russell

Detroit — Police officials Wednesday reassigned a homicide detective and placed him on restricted duty after launching an internal affairs investigation into how he handled the Davontae Sanford case nearly 12 years ago.

Lt. Michael Russell, who interrogated the 14-year-old Sanford after a September 2007 quadruple homicide, was moved out of the Homicide Section and stripped of his gun and arrest powers pending the investigation’s outcome, Detroit police Chief James Craig said.

Craig said he came to the decision after reading a Detroit News article about comments made last week by the federal judge presiding over Sanford's civil lawsuit. In the suit, Sanford claims he was wrongfully convicted of the four murders, and accuses Russell and former Detroit police commander James Tolbert of violating his civil rights.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson said Friday that Russell and Tolbert based the murder case against Sanford on "lies that were told over and over" by the two cops.

Craig called the judge’s accusation “troubling.”

“These allegations are serious enough that we had to take action,” Craig said. “We can’t have someone working on homicide cases and doing police work with this kind of serious accusation hanging over his head. So he'll still be working, but he won't be doing any police work until we finish this investigation."

Mark Young, president of the Lieutenants and Sergeants Association Union, said: "I don’t know enough about the case to make a statement at this time.”

City officials declined to comment about the judge's assertions. Attempts to contact Russell were not successful. Tolbert left the Detroit Police Department in 2013, became Flint's police chief and now works as a deputy chief in Highland Park. 

Wolfgang Mueller, a Farmington Hills attorney who represents several wrongfully convicted ex-prisoners, said he welcomed the internal affairs investigation into Russell.

"Cops who lie to grease the skids for a conviction are a disgrace to the badge," Mueller said. "I'm glad Chief Craig is investigating. The citizens of Detroit deserve better."

Sanford confessed to the quadruple homicide and later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. But he insists Russell and Tolbert tricked him into confessing and that he was coerced into the guilty plea by his attorney Robert Slameka, who has since been disbarred for multiple ethics violations.

Two weeks after Sanford was sentenced to 37-90 years in prison, hit man Vincent Smothers was arrested and confessed to 12 murders-for-hire — including the killings for which Sanford had been convicted.

Unlike Sanford, whose initial confession did not match the evidence at the crime scene, Smothers provided accurate details about the killings. The hit man, who said he was paid by drug dealers to eliminate their rivals, insisted he would have never hired a 14-year-old to help with a job. 

In June 2016, after Sanford had served nearly nine years of his sentence, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped the charges and he was released from prison.

Worthy said the conviction was tainted after a Michigan State Police investigation she'd asked for revealed Tolbert had committed perjury when he testified Sanford had drawn a map of the Runyon crime scene. Tolbert later admitted to state detectives he'd drawn the diagram. The statute of limitations expired before Tolbert was charged with perjury.

Sanford said he first came in contact with Russell the night of Sept. 17, 2007, after drug dealer "Big Mike" Robinson and three of his friends were gunned down as they watched "Monday Night Football" inside Robinson's home at 19741 Runyon, a block from Sanford's house on Detroit's east side.

Sanford claims he saw television news trucks at the crime scene and went to see what was happening. That's when he encountered Russell and another officer.

"Russell asked Sanford who he was, where he lived, and if he had 'seen anything,'" Judge Lawson said in his ruling last week. "(Sanford) responded that he had not."

Russell took Sanford into custody and questioned him. The interview was not videotaped, although a written report shows Sanford confessed to the killings, but provided erroneous information.

During a second interview the next day, video shows Russell reading facts about the crime to Sanford, who answers "yes" to each statement. 

Based on Sanford's second interview — and a sketch of the crime scene which Russell and Tolbert each testified had been drawn by Sanford — the teen was charged with first-degree murder. 

"Russell testified during both the preliminary examination and the criminal trial that, during the evening interview on September 18th, Sanford drew a diagram of the murder scene, which was entered into evidence as part of his confession statement," Lawton said in his ruling.

"However, Russell insisted that Sanford drew the sketch entirely on his own. Russell also testified that he never showed Sanford any photographs of the crime scene," the judge said.

"It is difficult to square that record with counsel’s assertion (in an earlier court filing) that Russell’s false statements were not entered into evidence at the preliminary examination hearing," Lawson said.

This is 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.

"These particular falsehoods — that Sanford drew the diagram himself, from his own knowledge of the scene, and that Sanford was not shown any photos of the crime scene depicting the bodies — are at the very heart of this case," 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," Lawson 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. Russell admits he was present when that was done.

"Both claim that they were 'mistaken' in their recall of how the sketch was made," Lawson said. "Tolbert's testimony (that the sketch was crucial to the case) makes it seem unlikely in the extreme that either of them actually 'forgot' how this 'critical' piece of evidence came into existence.

"But either way, the assertion (in the city's court filing) that Russell’s falsehoods were not made part of the record at the preliminary examination is plainly contradicted by the record of that proceeding," Lawson said.

James Tolbert

"Certainly there is a question of fact about whether Russell showed Sanford the crime scene photos — Sanford says he did, Russell says he did not," the judge said. "But Russell’s statement that he never showed the photos indisputably was entered into evidence and was a crucial piece of testimony at the preliminary examination hearing.

"Regardless of the ultimate truth or falsity of the statement, the assertion that
Russell’s lies don’t matter because they never were presented at the probable cause hearing brazenly misrepresents the record," Lawson said.

After Smothers was arrested, Russell escorted him to the bathroom after another detective had interrogated the hit man.

"While Smothers was using the bathroom, Russell said to him, 'heard you said that you did Runyon” — referring to the Runyon Street murders," Lawson said. "Smothers responded, 'Yes, I did say that,' to which Russell replied that it was 'impossible,' because 'We got the kid that did that.' Smothers then said, 'Impossible? Why do you say that? Because I did it.'

"Smothers then walked past Russell and returned to the interrogation room, and he never spoke with Russell again about the Runyon Street murders," the judge said. "Smothers testified that, unlike the other murders to which he had confessed, he never was further interrogated about the Runyon Street killings."

Although prosecutors charged Smothers with the other eight murders he'd confessed to, "the four Runyon Street killings are the only ones for which he was never charged," Lawson said.

Lawson said Tolbert "acknowledged that the failure fully to investigate Smothers’s admitted involvement in the Runyon Street murders was an 'extraordinary investigative lapse.' 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.

"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,'” Lawson said. "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."

Craig said he was surprised to read about the judge's remarks.

"I had heard some of the allegations (in the Sanford case), but it all happened before I got here, so I didn't know all the details," Craig said. "When a federal judge comes out and says one of my detectives lied about evidence, that has to be investigated, and that detective has to be taken out of homicide."

Sanford's lawsuit is to resume June 14 with a pretrial conference, during which Lawson is scheduled to rule on more than 30 motions. A trial date will be set after the hearing, court officials said.
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