Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Justice hopes for a new trial

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.


Anonymous said...

Latest development on this case:


November 6, 3:02 PM Detroit Crime Examiner Robert Brignall

Davontae Sanford was only 14 on September 17, 2007, when about thirty gunshots exploded in a rumored dope house on Detroit's east side. During the next couple of days, Sanford went from being a potential witness to a prime suspect in the shooting, which left four dead and one seriously wounded. Now 16, he languishes in prison, doing hard time at the Thumb Correctional Facility.

There are those who believe Sanford is innocent. His fate rests in part with a dogged appellate defender. a self-described hit man, and a retired police officer.

Sanford's incarceration stems from a confession and subsequent guilty plea, which lawyer Kim McGinnis of the State Appellate Defenders' Office (SADO) is working to set aside. Though the original bench trial did not feature an alibi defense, William Rice, a retired Detroit Police Commander and veteran of 25 years on the force testified on October 28 that Sanford was with him at a family member's house when the killings occurred.

"He was with me at the time the alleged crime took place," Rice testified before Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan. While the murders happened at about 11:30 PM, Rice testified that he didn't leave the relative's house until 11:45 to drive Sanford back home. Rice described Sanford as a "foster or step-nephew" who he had known for over 10 years.

The prosecutor at that hearing, far more used to having police officers be 'friendly' witnesses, was dubious about Rice's testimony, even asking the ex-cop if he was familiar with the penalties for perjury. After all, if Rice and Sanford were close, where was Rice during the initial bench trial? Why did he wait so long to come forward, and why wasn't the relatve produced to give corroborating testimony? If McGinnis does win a new trial for her client, these are questions a jury would consider in evaluating Rice's credibility.

Rice is a gamble for another reason. The more cogent theory of innocence is that the crime was commited by hit man Vincent Smothers and an accomplice (Smothers confessed to the same, and did not name Sanford), and that Sanford, drawn by the sound of gunfire, entered the alleged dope house only after the criminal episode was over. That would explain how Sanford was able to sketch the crime scene for police, including the positions of the bodies, and might conceivably explain how gunshot residue was found on the clothing Sanford claimed to have worn that night. My research does not reveal whether such residue was found on Sanford's hands.

Rice's testimony undercuts this theory of innocence by making it less likely that Sanford could have arrived at the murder scene before the police, and thus makes the Sanford's crime scene sketch more difficult to explain.

Still, there is sound reason for McGinnis to try to break the guilty plea, because the confession that led to it is unsatisfying. Sanford was only 14, developmentally disabled, blind in one eye. He was questioned without an attorney, or even his mother, present, and seemed from the beginning over-eager to please the investigators. Since Sanford reads at a 3rd grade level, it is doubtful he could have read the confession the police wrote from his statements. The weapon Sanford claimed he used did not match the ballistic tests.

According to McGinnis the .45 automatic and AK-47 that were used were in Vincent Smother's arsenal, and the crime scene fits his M.O. Though guilty pleas are historically difficult to set aside, McGinnis, with the Smothers confession and the Rice testimony, may have raised enough doubt to get it done in this case.


Anonymous said...

Witness: Teen doesn't match description of gunman in 2007 Detroit slayings

Davontae Sanford's lawyer seeks to have conviction tossed out


A Detroit Police chaplain testified during a court hearing today that the person who fired a gun at him moments after a shooting on his street was at least 6 inches taller than a teen who is imprisoned for the 2007 quadruple killings.

The Rev. Jesse King testified that he saw two people wearing long black coats and ski masks seconds after four people were killed Sept. 17, 2007, in a drug house on Runyon on Detroit’s east side. King said the taller of the two men, whom he described as being at least 5-feet-ll, used a rifle to fire three rounds into King’s house as he watched from his porch. King returned fire and retreated inside.

“When I seen them coming up I knew something wasn’t right,” said King, 60. “Instinct kicked in and I stepped back into my home.”

Police have said Davontae Sanford, who was 14 at the time of the shooting in the 19700 block of Runyon, told them he and his friends plotted to rob a drug house and wound up shooting those inside. But Sanford’s appellate attorney said investigators in both written reports and in court testimony have acknowledged that Sanford is only 5-feet-5.

“This is just further evidence that Davontae could not have committed these shootings,” said attorney Kim McGinnis at the appellate hearing where he is seeking to overturn the guilty verdict and grant Sanford a new trial..

In October, a retired Detroit homicide commander provided an alibi for Sanford. William Rice, a 25-year veteran, testified that Sanford with him at Sanford’s aunt’s house for dinner at the time of the shooting.

Vincent Smothers, suspected of being a hit man, also has confessed to the killings, but has not been charged. Smothers has confessed to killing at least seven people, including the wife of a Detroit Police sergeant. Police say he may have acted in concert with Sanford.

According to his confession, Sanford said he and three other suspects had guns, and he used an M14 rifle that he tossed after the shooting. Sanford also confessed that he fired the rifle, which he said did not belong to him, at King after the shooting.

King said he could not describe the shooter other than his outerwear and height. “My focus was on my life, defending my home and my territory,” he said in Wayne County Circuit Court.

McGinnis has argued that Sanford, now 17, was likely fed information by homicide investigators and later included those details in his confession. Sanford has a learning disability and was reading at a third-grade level at the time of the incident. He is also blind in one eye.

After a two-day bench trial in March 2008, Sanford accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and using a firearm during a felony. In April 2008, he was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison.

Sanford is in prison at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. Court proceedings are expected to continue in Wayne County Judge Brian Sullivan’s courtroom in January.