DNA evidence contested in Davontae Sanford case
Detroit — Blood found on 14-year-old Davontae Sanford’s shoes after a 2007 quadruple homicide was retested last month, and it matched one of the victims, Deangelo McNoriell, city attorneys claimed in recent federal court filings in a lawsuit over his disputed murder conviction.
But Sanford's attorneys insist the test results from Pittsburgh laboratory Cybergenetics are unreliable, and pointed out in motions that Michigan State Police had tested the blue-and-white Nike Air Jordan shoes in May and were unable to identify a DNA match.
In the suit, Sanford claims he was wrongfully convicted of the four murders, and accuses two Detroit officers of violating his civil rights. 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.
City attorneys wrote in a Jan. 3 filing: "The initial results demonstrate ... there is strong support for the hypothesis that Deangelo McNoriell’s DNA was on the exterior of (Sanford's) shoes."
Beatriz Pujols, the forensic analyst who retested the shoes using her firm's proprietary TrueAllele computer system, wrote in a Dec. 19 email that the test constitutes "preliminary unconfirmed results (that) should not be used for civil or criminal justice purposes."
Pujols did not mention McNoriell in her letter, only that "a victim's DNA is present in the evidence" and "DNA from an unknown male is present in the evidence."
A day after Pujols' letter, Michigan State Police investigator Robert Weimer wrote in an email to city attorneys: "Cybergenetics completed its initial ... computer analysis of the DNA data. Based on the initial findings it appears a victim’s DNA is present.
"It should be noted this is preliminary information but it appears (if I’m reading their chart correctly) that Deangelo McNoriell’s DNA may be present on the outside of the shoes," Weimer wrote. "I am working with our lab to clarify the information they provided."
Sanford's attorney Emma Freudenberger told The Detroit News in a statement: "This isn’t new testing, all TrueAllele has done is attempted to reinterpret data the Michigan State Police found inconclusive.
"There is no report, there are no official results, and experts have raised serious concerns about the reliability of TrueAllele’s techniques," Freudenberger said. "More important, we know from all the other evidence in the case that our client is innocent, so we fully expect that this will have no impact on the case."
Freudenberger filed a motion Monday asking the court to seal the Cybergenetics results or strike them from the record.
"The only conceivable purpose (for city attorneys to include the lab findings is) ... to harass Plaintiff and taint the jury pool with facially incompetent and unsupported prejudicial statements," she wrote.
U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson has not ruled on Freudenberger's motion.
State Police officials could not be reached Thursday and city attorneys did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said Thursday: “When there’s new evidence that’s discovered in a case, we have an obligation to pursue it. At this point, we don’t know what we have, and it would be premature to speculate.”
On Sept. 17, 2007, McNoriell, 31, was one of four people killed inside a drug house on Runyon Street. According to court filings and a Wayne County Medical Examiner's autopsy, McNoriell was shot three times in the head, and in the arm as he sat on a couch in the living room watching "Monday Night Football."
The other victims were the homeowner, Michael Robinson, 33; Nicole Chapman, 29; and Brian Dixon, 31.
Sanford confessed to the crime and later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He insists Lt. Michael Russell and former police commander James Tolbert tricked him into confessing, and that he was coerced into the guilty plea by his attorney Robert Slameka, who was later 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.
Sanford spent nearly nine years in prison until he was released in June 2016, after Worthy said she learned Tolbert had committed perjury during a 2010 appeal hearing when he testified Sanford had drawn a diagram of the crime scene.
During a 2015 Michigan State Police investigation into the case, Tolbert told state detectives that he drew part of the crime scene map, contradicting his earlier testimony. The statute of limitations expired before Tolbert could be charged.
Although Worthy said the alleged perjury tainted the case against Sanford, she insisted there was other evidence implicating him in the crime.
Sanford told state police detectives in 2015 that he didn't wear the Air Jordan shoes the night of the killings.
In September 2017, Sanford's attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Tolbert and Russell, claiming they framed him for the murders. There have since been 348 filings in the case.