Editorial: Wider probe needed of prosecutor, cops

The Detroit News

A deeper dive is needed into the operations of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and Detroit Police Department in light of the revelations that an innocent man, who had already spent nine years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, was kept locked up for an additional eight months after it was determined he was convicted on the basis of perjured testimony.

The Davontae Sanfordcase is an embarrassment for Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose office for years ignored compelling evidence that Sanders was coerced into confessing to four Detroit drug house murders. He was 14 at the time, and a convicted hit man claimed responsibility for the killings shortly after Sanford went to prison.

A just released state police report alleges that a top former Detroit police official, James Tolbert, committed perjury in his testimony against Sanford, and pressured the boy into confessing. Sanford, now 24, was at last released from prison two weeks ago and is waiting final resolution of his case.

He could and should have been freed much earlier. Although Worthy publicly stated she just learned of the perjury allegations in May, the state police report clearly states her office was notified eight months ago that Tolbert had likely lied.

Legal experts are conflicted on whether Worthy had a legal obligation to take steps to free Sanford as soon as that information was revealed. She certainly had an ethical responsibility to get him released as soon as possible.

At the least, under Michigan’s Rules of Professional Conduct, she was obliged to make a timely disclosure to the defense of evidence that could exonerate a defendant. She didn’t do that.

This case needs much more scrutiny. Certainly the Attorney Grievance Commission should determine whether there were any ethical violations on Worthy’s part.

But beyond that, state Attorney General Bill Schuette should determine whether criminal or civil action is warranted in this case against either the prosecutor’s office or the police department.

The statute of limitations for perjury charges against Tolbert expires on July 13. Worthy’s office says it is reviewing the evidence. Given the prosecutor’s office’s role in wrongfully detaining Sanford, Schuette should be looking at the evidence as well.

But more important, he should determine whether the framing of Sanford was an isolated incident or part of a larger problem with justice in Wayne County.

The state police report indicates that Tolbert may have been protecting Vincent Smothers, the hit man who confessed to the murders Sanford was sent to prison for, and whose efforts on behalf of the wrongly convicted man were rebuffed by Worthy’s office.

Did Tolbert perjure himself in other cases to help win convictions? All cases in which his testimony was central to a conviction should be reviewed.

There also appears to be a dispute between state police and Worthy over bringing charges against Smothers and the other two suspects implicated in the murders for which Sanford was convicted. That must be resolved.

Additionally, the Sanford case lends credence to other allegations of bungled justice against the prosecutor’s office. The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic has a fat file of cases in which it believes Wayne County and Detroit cops either ignored evidence of innocence or distorted evidence to prove guilt. Schuette should review all those cases as well.

Finally, if Sanford’s wrongful conviction is an indicator of wider problems in the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, this is fertile ground for a civil rights investigation by the federal Justice Department.