Exoneree's sons sue Detroit, cop over wrongful murder conviction

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

The sons of a Detroit man who spent three decades behind prison walls for a slaying in which he was wrongly convicted have filed a federal lawsuit against a Detroit Police officer and the city of Detroit.

Lawyers for Danny Lamont Chambers and Dontell Rayvon-Eddie Smith, both in their 30s, filed the lawsuit Thursday naming Officer Ronald Sanders and the city as defendants. The men are the children of Danny Burton, who was exonerated in December 2019 for the 1987 slaying of 20-year-old Leonard Ruffin.

Two children of Danny Burton, who was released from prison in December 2019 after being exonerated in a 1987 homicide, have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Detroit and a police officer

Ruffin's body was found in an alley between Philadelphia and Euclid, north of Interstate 94 and just east of I-75, on May 2, 1987. Burton was convicted of first-degree murder in September that year after a five-day trial. 

The case against Burton and two other defendants was built primarily upon witness statements of individuals who resided in or were present at the home where the shooting occurred; they said Burton had helped dump Ruffin's body in the alley where it was found.

The key witnesses who testified at Burton’s trial subsequently provided affidavits recanting their trial testimony and stating that they gave false statements at trial because of threats and intimidation by  Sanders, according to the lawsuit.

An attorney for Sanders could not be located for comment. A message left with the president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, the union that represents Detroit Police officers, was not immediately returned Monday. 

Sanders engaged in threats, intimidation, and physical violence to pressure Burton into confessing to a crime he didn't commit, according to the lawsuit. The police officer, according to the lawsuit and other court documents in the case, employed the same tactics to successfully pressure Burton into signing a waiver of constitutional rights.

Sanders also engaged in similar tactics to pressure another friend and associate of Burton’s, Paul Young, into "falsely confessing to the crime and implicating" Burton, the suit alleges. 

Burton also has filed a federal lawsuit in the case against Sanders and the city.

Detroit's Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said Monday: "The city is currently defending the underlying claim of this suit and will defend this suit as well." 

According to the complaint filed by Burton's sons, "As a direct and proximate result of the wrongful acts and omissions of Defendant SANDERS and DETROIT, (they) sustained damages, specifically having their father wrongfully torn away from them for over 32 years and forced to endure the pain and humiliation of having their father labeled a murderer."

 Burton, who's in his early 50s, is working as a custodian for a local self-storage company. Like many other exonerees, he is seeking money from a state fund created by the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act that was set up to compensate the wrongfully convicted for the years they lost behind bars.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office vacated Burton's conviction after learning witnesses who said Burton helped dump Ruffin's body had been paid by police.

Burton's attorney Solomon Radner said the sons' lawsuit is novel and "not a typical" complaint for an exoneration.

"Children have a substantive due process right to be with their parents," he said. "In this case, the father was torn away from the children. The children were forced to grow up without their father. The father was labeled a murderer and he didn't kill anybody."