On June 8, 2016, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) and Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC) client Davontae Sanford was released from a Michigan prison after serving nine years for a 2007 quadruple homicide he confessed to but did not commit.
Davontae was only 14 years old when he was picked up by police while standing in his front yard in his pajamas as police canvassed the neighborhood following the crime. Davontae was brought to the police station and subjected to over 24 hours of police interrogation, including two overnight interrogations, without an attorney or even a parent present. After police repeatedly accused him of this heinous crime, lied to him and said that they found blood on his shoes linking him to the crime scene, and told him he could go home if he just confessed, Davontae eventually broke and confessed. But his confession made little sense and got far more wrong than it got right.
Davontae was tried as an adult based almost entirely on his patently unreliable confession. Notwithstanding the State’s weak case, Davontae’s trial attorney did not move to suppress Davontae’s confession, despite its many red flags for false confessions, and did not ask a single question of the interrogating detective on cross-examination. Faced with his hopeless prospects, Davontae pleaded guilty in the middle of trial. He was sentenced to 39 to 92 years in prison.
A mere two weeks after Davontae was sentenced, admitted professional hitman Vincent Smothers was arrested and freely told police that he and a single adult accomplice – not 14-year-old Davontae – were responsible for the Runyon Street killings. Smothers confessed to the Runyon killings while voluntarily confessing to a string of eight other murders he committed in 2006 and 2007. Unlike Davontae’s confession, Smothers’ confession to the Runyon killings was highly detailed, perfectly corroborated by the evidence, and included new information that the police did not know but later confirmed through further investigation. Most notably, Smothers led the police to one of murder weapons used on Runyon Street; that gun was a perfect ballistics match for the crime scene shell casings.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office charged Smothers with every other murder described in his confession, except the four murders for which Davontae Sanford was serving time. Instead of charging Smothers with these crimes, they offered him a plea deal contingent on his silence about the Runyon homicides. Smothers declined the deal because, in his words, “it seemed ludicrous . . . that the state would actually go this far to make sure Davontae Sanford remained in prison for crimes I committed and confessed to.”
Last April, the CWCY and MIC filed a motion for relief from judgment detailing Davontae’s innocence. The motion left no question that Smothers’ confession was far more reliable than Davontae’s wholly uncorroborated confession, and attached a 30-page affidavit by hitman Vincent Smothers, as well as reports from several experts, including the nationally recognized police interrogation expert, Jim Trainum. This filing, and the significant national attention it garnered, spurred the Michigan State Police to open a wholesale reinvestigation of this case. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, led by Kym Worthy, authorized the investigation.
The Michigan State Police spent over a year exhaustively reinvestigating this case and Davontae’s involvement, if any. On May 20, 2015, the MSP turned over lengthy reports to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office detailing Davontae’s innocence, as well as related state misconduct. As a direct result, Worthy’s office moved to dismiss all charges against Davontae.
On June 6, 2016, Wayne County Judge Brian Sullivan vacated Davontae’s conviction and ordered his immediate release. We are thrilled for Davontae and his family. We also want to applaud the Michigan State Police for their truly extraordinary reinvestigation of the Runyon Street murders and Davontae’s innocence.
The CWCY legal team was led by co-director Megan Crane and supported by CWCY co-founder and Bluhm Legal Clinic Assistant Dean Steve Drizin and CWCY co-director Laura Nirider. The MIC team was led by co-founder and director Dave Moran. This victory would not have been possible without the tireless work of several Northwestern law students, including but not limited to, Lauren Howard (’15), Emily Damrau (’15), Cassie Hightman (’16), Monica Pedroza (’15), Melody Dernocoeur (’16), Sarah Rivkin (’15), Aaron Kacel (’17) and Celia Spalding (’16). The Bluhm Legal Clinic social workers provided critical support for our client and our legal team.
This is the second case in which Michigan’s Innocence Clinic and Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth have collaborated. The two programs worked together in 2014 to exonerate Jamie Lee Peterson after he spent 17 years in a Michigan prison for a 1996 rape-murder he did not commit. The MSP was also instrumental in that exoneration.
You can read more about the case in Northwestern’s press release, the New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Christian Science Monitor, or Buzzfeed. You can also watch Davontae walk out of prison here.