Detroit council OK's $7.5M settlement with wrongfully imprisoned teen

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a $7.5 million settlement with a man who entered prison as a teenager and spent eight years there before a prosecutor agreed to drop four murder convictions.

Davontae Sanford was just 15 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the fatal shootings of four people at a drug house on Runyon, two blocks from his home on Detroit's east side in 2007.

In this June 9, 2016, file photo, Davontae Sanford stands with his mother, Taminko Sanford, and addresses the media during a news conference in Detroit, a day after being released from prison.

Two weeks after the teen went to prison, professional hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to 12 killings, including the Sept. 17, 2007 homicides on Runyon. Wayne County prosecutors charged Smothers with eight murders, but not the Runyon killings.

Although he pleaded guilty, Sanford later insisted he was innocent and took a plea deal only because he felt helpless and poorly represented by a lawyer. He was 14 at the time of the murders.

► Full coverage: Davontae Sanford’s road to freedom

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Innocence advocates decried Sanford’s conviction as a miscarriage of justice and fought for years to get his case overturned. Their efforts were rewarded June 8, 2016, when Sanford's convictions were dropped at the request of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and he walked out of the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility a free man.

Worthy, however, did not cite Smothers as the reason. She said misconduct by Detroit police during Sanford’s interrogation had spoiled the case.

► MORE: Cops involved in Davontae Sanford lawsuit denied immunity

A smudge, possibly blood, on Davontae Sanford's Nike Air Jordan shoe

At the time, David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan’s law school, said the case revealed a “complete breakdown” in the criminal justice system. The clinic as well as the law school at Northwestern University helped free Sanford.

Smothers, meanwhile, has never been charged in the Runyon Street homicides. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight other killings.

Smothers said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade but would never take on a teenager as a sidekick.

The City Council members did not comment on the settlement, which was one of 10 approved in a batch vote Tuesday. 

Minister Eric Blount of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit advocated for the council to approve the settlement during public comment saying, "Please vote yes. This is a small effort to right the wrong... due to systemic corruption."

Blount also advocated against another matter before the council that would allocate more funds for police surveillance systems in the city. 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_