Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth
Through outreach, advocacy, education, and litigation, the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth (CWCY) seeks to implement policies and practices that will ensure that the evidence used against youth is reliable. More...
June 13, 2016
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 Atlantic, the Detroit Free Press, the Christian Science Monitor, or Buzzfeed. You can also watch Davontae walk out of prison here.
June 8, 2016
BREAKING NEWS: Davontae Sanford walked out of prison at 3 PM EST today. Read our press release here.
Michigan Judge Orders Release of CWCY client Davontae Sanford! Read our press release here.
May 10, 2016
Brendan Dassey’s post-conviction attorneys, Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, featured in the smash hit Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, presented a lecture at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law on April 6, 2016, entitled Brendan Dassey: A True Story of A False Confession.
Following their presentation, a panel of distinguished guests discussed issues presented by Brendan's confession and case, including the legality of certain interrogation techniques, the power of pre-trial publicity, and the impact of the Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, on the justice system more generally.
Illinois attorneys can earn 2 professional responsibility continuing legal education credits in the state of Illinois for this course. The CLE fee is $150. Proceeds will go to support the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Learn more and register.
March 23, 2016
Notice from Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider Regarding Use of the Reid Technique on Juveniles
As we have recently discovered, misinformation is spreading that we consider the Reid Technique of Interrogations the "gold standard on proper procedures" and that we "regularly review reid.com and our materials to establish best practices."
These statements are not accurate. We do not endorse the Reid Technique, nor do we consider it a model for proper procedures or best practices.
Read full notice (pdf)
March 1, 2016
A Conversation with Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider on Making a Murderer from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
January 29, 2016
January 5, 2016
The Netflix ten-part documentary series, Making a Murderer, is receiving rave reviews, with comparisons to such recent classic true crime dramas as The Jinx and Serial. The story centers on the “truth is stranger than fiction” tale of Steven Avery. Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth attorneys Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider are featured prominently in Episode 10 of the series, which contains courtroom footage of their efforts to win a new trial for Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was convicted as Avery’s accomplice. For more information on the Dassey case, and for information on how to make a gift to the CWCY, click here.
Here's our Action Agenda on what viewers can do after watching Making a Murderer.
December 23, 2015
To the viewers of Making A Murderer:
We, at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, want to wish you a Happy Holiday season.
We have received your many inquiries about Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It is important that you understand that we do not represent Steven Avery; we represent Brendan Dassey. As you know from watching the film, the evidence and the legal issues in the two cases are very different and we do not feel it is appropriate for us to respond to questions about Steven’s case.
As for Brendan, we are thinking about ways in which you can be of use to Brendan and other juvenile suspects who are interrogated by the police. Unfortunately, Brendan’s interrogation experience is all too common for juveniles suspected of crimes. In our work, we have seen police officers routinely question youthful suspects as if they are adults. All too often, courts have enabled police by allowing them to not only to use coercive tactics to get suspects to confess but by letting police contaminate confessions through the kind of fact-feeding you saw in the film.
We are trying to change police practices through our scholarship, our advocacy, and our casework. We have also co-written a guide with the International Association of Chiefs of Police entitled “Reducing Risks: An Executive’s Guide to Effective Interviewing and Interrogation of Juveniles”. For more information about our work, please feel free to peruse our website and the website of our parent organization -- the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Thank you for your support for Brendan. We are sharing with him your well wishes and will spend the holidays thinking more about ways for Making A Murderer watchers to assist Brendan.
Update August 13, 2015 - Dan Andersen is exonerated! Read our press release.
On July 20, 2015, Judge Alfredo Maldonado of Cook County vacated CWCY client Daniel Andersen’s 1982 murder and attempted rape convictions. 19-year-old Dan Andersen was arrested on January 24, 1980, for the murder and attempted rape of 20-year-old Cathy Trunko, a friend from Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood who had been found stabbed to death five days earlier. Police believed a bloody knife found two days after her stabbing in a neighbor’s yard was the murder weapon. Dan was 19, sleep deprived, and very drunk when he confessed to killing Ms. Trunko with this bloody knife after sixteen hours of police interrogation.
At trial, prosecutors said the blood type on the knife matched Ms. Trunko’s and argued that Dan’s confession to killing Ms. Trunko with that very knife proved his guilt. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
But in 2012, three decades later, DNA testing proved Dan’s innocence. New DNA testing on the knife showed that neither Ms. Trunko’s blood nor Dan’s DNA was on the knife, proving it was not the murder weapon after all. As Judge Maldonado concluded, “the knife was the lynchpin of the State’s case against” Dan; without it, there is absolutely no physical evidence linking Dan to this crime.
What’s more, additional DNA testing of Ms. Trunko’s fingernail clippings revealed two male profiles – both of which excluded Dan Andersen. This fingernail DNA evidence is truly exculpatory evidence because the evidence indicates that Ms. Trunko defended herself against her attacker and that at least one, if not both, of these DNA profiles belong to her assailant(s).
Judge Maldonado called this DNA evidence “extraordinarily compelling” and concluded that a jury would likely return a different result if the case were retried today.
Dan, now 54 years old, served 27.5 years before his release in April of 2007. While Dan has been “free” for over eight years, he has struggled to rebuild his life due to his convictions and status as a registered sex offender. Despite his struggles, Dan has remained positive and focused on clearing his name, which he has finally achieved with this ruling.
Dan has been a client of the CWCY since 2012 and has been represented by Steve Drizin, Josh Tepfer, Laura Nirider, and Megan Crane, along with a persistent and thoughtful group of Northwestern Law students: Weston Sager (JD 2015), Amanda Toy (JD 2015), Leidy Valencia (JD 2015), Lin Zhu (JD 2015), Abby Parr (JD 2014), Elena Garcia (JD 2014), Kathleen Garvey (JD 2013), and Adam Kirshner (JD 2013), and Rebeca Stephens (JD 2013), among others.