Davontae Sanford, who went to prison when he was only 15 years old, finally walked out of a prison a free man on Thursday, June 9. Now 23, Sanford was convicted for the 2007 killing of four people at a drug house in Detroit in a case that was riddled with the makings of a wrongful conviction. The teenager, who lived in the neighborhood, was standing near the crime scene in his pajamas following the fatal shooting, where witnesses told police that his voice resembled one of the shooter’s.
After several hours of questioning over the course of two days, Sanford, who did not completely understand what was going on and was told that he could go home if he admitted to committing the crime, confessed to police and they charged him. Sanford later claimed that he tried recanting his confession. Despite the teen telling police that he used a gun for which no shell casings matching it were found at the crime scene and a murder weapon never having been located, gunshot residue on his clothing and a tracking dog that led authorities to his home also helped them charge Sanford with the murders.
In the middle of his trial, Sanford concluded that his public defender, Robert Slameka, was not going to defend him, so he pleaded guilty. Slameka has received criticism for his failure to challenge his client’s court confession, and his law license is also currently under review due to numerous accusations of misconduct. Despite being developmentally impaired and blind in one eye, a judge at a bench trial convicted the then 15-year-old to 37 to 90 years in prison.
Two weeks later, a hit man confessed to the crime and led police to a gun for which ballistic tests confirmed that it was the weapon used to kill the four victims. The assassin, Vincent Smothers, also told police that Sanford had nothing to do with the crime. This information, however, was never disclosed to Sanford’s defense team, who had difficulty obtaining the information. Despite Smothers’ confession, Sanford would remain in prison for a total of eight years before his exoneration.
When the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth accepted Sanford as their client in 2014, they urged Michigan State Police to reinvestigate the case. That reinvestigation brought into the spotlight former Flint police chief James Tolbert’s role in Sanford’s conviction. Tolbert had originally stated that Sanford drew the picture of the crime scene, which was a critical piece of evidence used to convict him. Upon reinvestigation into the case, however, the former police chief admitted that he himself drew the diagram of the crime scene. A warrant is currently under review, and Tolbert may face criminal charges for his part in Sanford’s wrongful conviction.
Following Sanford’s exoneration, Kym Worthy, the top prosecutor in the case, defended her office’s handling of the case. She claimed that Tolbert’s contradicting statements, rather than Smothers’ confession, were the reason they dropped the charges against Sanford. Worthy stated that Sanford, who was determined competent to stand trial by a licensed medical professional, had a number of opportunities to speak with his lawyers and family, and that Smothers could have testified for the defense during the appeals process. She went on to say that her office thoroughly followed up on allegations, that they had good reason to charge Sanford at the time, and that she does not know how she would have prosecuted the case differently.
After his release from prison, Sanford’s first meal as a free man was Chinese food. He wants to put it all behind him and move forward, and hopes to attend college, learn how to drive and get his driver’s license, and share his experience with at-risk youth and juvenile delinquents. Unsurprisingly, his family is happy to have him home, including his sister, who shared her excitement on social media. Sanford’s defense attorneys also plan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officials responsible for his conviction in the hopes of obtaining compensation for the eight years Sanford spent wrongfully incarcerated.