When law enforcement officials refuse to admit mistakes -- and yes, they do
make them -- it perpetuates the worst kind of injustice.
Remember Detroit's Eddie Joe Lloyd? DNA tests freed him in 2002 after
he spent 17 years in prison for a murder and rape he didn't do. After Lloyd's
release, Judge Leonard Townsend said he didn't regret a thing.
Two years later, when DNA evidence cleared Daron Caldwell in the
high-profile fireworks shooting, Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings and Wayne
County Prosecutor Kym Worthy were equally unapologetic.
These attitudes create animosity in the community -- something Detroit
police and prosecutors can no longer afford if they want to gain trust and
reduce crime. Talk to people in the neighborhoods, especially young men. Many
believe law enforcement routinely railroads people.
Which brings me to
16-year-old Davontae Sanford. He's serving 37 to 90 years for four murders at a
suspected drug house on Runyon Street in September 2007. Vincent Smothers
confessed to the same murders in April 2008. A self-professed hit man, Smothers,
27, has been charged with first-degree murder in six other cases involving 11
victims. Still, Worthy's office has declined to help the teenager get another
trial. Worthy declined to comment specifically on the case, calling my column
premature in light of an upcoming hearing.
The government had even failed to hand over Smothers' confession to
Davontae's attorney, Kim McGinnis. Prosecutors denied it existed until February,
when Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan ordered them to turn it over to
the State Appellate Defender's Office.
An evidentiary hearing on Tuesday will
determine whether Davontae can withdraw his March 2008 plea and get the new
trial he deserves.
Confessions and evidence
False confessions aren't unusual, especially with teenagers who are
vulnerable to sophisticated interrogation tactics. A special education student
who read at a third-grade level, Davontae was insecure and eager to fit in.
Smothers' confession, unlike Davontae's, fits the forensic evidence and an
eyewitness account. Smothers identified the only two kinds of weapons used in
the Runyon Street murders -- an AK47 assault rifle and a .45-caliber pistol --
court documents show. Davontae named at least four weapons and said he used a
Mini-14 rifle, but police found no such casings.
Altogether, Smothers confessed to killing 15 people from July 2006 to
December 2007. He told police he was paid between $5,000 and $15,000 for the
On the night of the Runyon Street killings, neighbors said they heard
dozens of shots coming from the east-side house. Smothers told police that he
and another man, who was never charged, fired through an outside window and then
entered the house.
Davontae lived two blocks away and approached homicide investigators about
two hours later. (Would someone who just killed four people walk up to a cop?)
Officers questioned him overnight at headquarters, brought him back home the
next day, and then picked him up again about two hours later. After Davontae
confessed, he was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree
At Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Davontae, Department of
Corrections inmate No. 684070, told me he made up the confession, after officers
showed him shell casings and digital photos of the crime scene. Officers also
talked about the case, let him play on a computer, and fed him food from a Coney
Island. They wrote up a confession, which Sanford signed but said he couldn't
Possibly a horrible injustice
Because of ongoing court proceedings, Detroit police declined to let me
interview Sgt. Michael Russell, the lead investigator who interrogated
Sanford's mother, Taminko Sanford, 34, told me her son was puffed
up after returning from the Police Department.
"He thought he was a big shot," she said. "It was like he had gone to
Disneyland or Cedar Point. ... From Day One, I knew my son was innocent."
Smothers told the truth -- and police believed him in other murders -- then
Davontae's prison sentence is a horrible injustice that Worthy's office should
do everything possible to end, and Smothers himself should be charged in the
Runyon Street killings. As officers of the court, prosecutors are entrusted with
ensuring due process -- no less than defense attorneys.
Now it's up to Judge Sullivan to make sure that happens.