Editorial: Sanford owed more than freedom

The Detroit News

Davontae Sanford walked out of prison this week, but his freedom is not enough to right the wrong done to him by the justice system in Wayne County. That will require intensive, ongoing support to make sure he can adapt to society. And a full accounting of how he ended up behind bars for nine years for murders he didn’t commit.

Sanford was 14 when he was coerced into confessing to killing four people in a drug house execution. Despite wild discrepancies in his confession and the fact that another man admitted to the killings, Sanford was stubbornly kept in prison by a Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office that was unwilling to admit it made a mistake.

Innocence advocates harangued the courts for years on Sanford’s behalf. But it wasn’t until the Michigan State Police investigated the case and determined he could not have committed the crime for which he was convicted that he was released.

That report has not been made public. It should be.

The state police reportedly recommends perjury charges be brought against former Detroit Deputy Police Chief James Tolbert for lying about Sanford’s confession. Prosecutor Kym Worthy seized on that allegation in a statement this week in an attempt to shift blame for the wrongful conviction onto the police.

But her office has much to answer for as well, including ignoring the repeated attempts by convicted hit man Vincent Smothers to take responsibility for the murders, and not recognizing the flimsiness of the evidence against Sanford.

The state police report would be useful in determining what went wrong in Worthy’s office, and how to prevent it from happening again, and Worthy should not be allowed to keep it secret.

Further, Worthy should ask for an independent examination of her operation, perhaps by Attorney General Bill Schuette, to determine whether what happened to Sanford is an isolated incident or part of a pattern of placing expediency ahead of justice. There may be others like Sanford serving time for crimes they didn’t commit because of sloppy practices.

As for Sanford, his life has been ruined by an indifferent and inept system. He deserves help in reclaiming it.

Since most of his time in prison has been spent in maximum security facilities, he has not had adequate opportunities to get an education and obtain the skills he will need to live on the outside. Wayne County, since it is responsible for the damage, should make sure Sanford gets all the assistance he needs.

He will not be compensated for his wrongful imprisonment. A bill that would provide such relief is stuck in a state House committee. But he certainly should be looked after in some fashion until he is able to take care of himself.

He apparently has a supportive family, and his legal team has pledged ongoing assistance, but he will need a great deal of additional help to adjust to his new life, and to avoid making mistakes that will send him back to prison.

Having been redeemed from a cell in which he never belonged, Sanford can not be abandoned to the streets. It will take extraordinary efforts to give him his life back, but that is the least he is owed.