Finley: In Wayne County, justice falls to expediency

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Robert Slameka is a burglar and scoundrel. In one sense, that could be viewed as a positive, since what Slameka does for a living is represent burglars and other scoundrels in Wayne County courts.

The problem is that he doesn't do his job very well, at least from his clients' perspective, since nearly all of them end up behind bars.

The courts, though, must see Slameka's performance differently, since they've continued to assign him the cases of indigent defendants despite more than 16 reprimands and admonishments since 1986 from the Attorney Discipline Board for failing to provide adequate defense to dozens of clients.

Among the offenses mentioned are neglecting to file motions for appeal, failing to communicate with his clients — some said Slameka never even talked to them — and taking money from defendants for services he never delivered. His law license was suspended by the board in 2011 for 90 days on charges similar to the ones that earned him the previous wrist slaps, and next month he will begin a second suspension, this one for 180 days.

Yet he's kept getting taxpayer dollars to handle cases even after being arrested for breaking into the homes of his ex-girlfriend and a client. And even after he was convicted in one of those break-ins. Wayne County was so eager to keep him before its bench that it brought in a visiting prosecutor from Oakland County to avoid the conflict of having the same prosecutors who were trying to convict Slameka facing off against him in court.

He stands as the most glaring example of a legal system in Wayne County that values expediency over justice.

The only explanation for why Slameka is so beloved by the courts that they are willing to ignore his incompetence, malfeasance and conviction is that he makes the trains run on time — which in Wayne County means he gets his clients to plead guilty quickly and without the expense of a jury trial.

"Unfortunately, Bob Slameka is part of the legal culture that exists in Wayne County courts," says David Moran of the University of Michigan Law School's Innocence Project, which is trying to free a Slameka client serving life in prison for a murder someone else has confessed to.

"The faster you move cases through the courts the more cases you can take, and the more money the county saves. Everybody wins. Prosecutors get an easy conviction. Judges keep their dockets moving. The attorney gets more cases. Everybody wins except the defendant."

One of those losers is Davontae Sanford, who when he was a troubled 14-year-old confessed to killing four drug dealers in a crack house in Detroit and had the bad luck of getting Slameka assigned to his case.

As usual, the speedy attorney moved his client quickly from arraignment to prison without the bother of a trial, even though, as Moran says, "it's ludicrous to think a mentally slow and half-blind kid could have pulled off a carefully planned and meticulously executed drug hit."

Sanford, now 22, is at least the second wrongful life imprisonment Slameka helped facilitate. He was also the attorney for Eddie Joe Lloyd, who in 2002 became the first Michigan convict exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.

Slameka handled Lloyd's appeal, but never once met with his client and refused to take his calls because, as he told National Public Radio, "I don't get paid for his long-distance phone calls from Jackson prison."

When his appeal failed, Lloyd filed a complaint against Slameka to which the lawyer responded: "This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated."

That should have been a clue to his disdain for his clients. And yet the county kept giving him work, and can be counted on to do so again once the six-month suspension of his law license ends.

Back to the Davontae Sanford case for a moment. Within months after he was imprisoned, another man, Vincent Smothers, confessed to the four drug house murders and eight others, providing collaborating details and even directing cops to the murder weapon.

Yet instead of rushing to get Sanford freed, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy continues to fight to keep him locked up.

"It's a systemic problem with the Prosecutor's Office," Moran says. "It refuses to engage when there is clear evidence of a wrongful conviction. It's too reluctant to admit mistakes were made."

In a system of true justice, Bob Slameka, the prosecutors who ignored the compelling evidence of Davontae Sanford's innocence and the Wayne County judges who continue to place the fate of poor defendants like him in the hands of crooks and incompetents would take his place behind bars when he is inevitably released.

But in Wayne County, the principle of Blind Justice has been twisted into Blind to Injustice.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.