Davontae Sanford has thus far had a short but very eventful life. Now aged 25, the Detroit resident spent nearly nine years incarcerated for crimes of which he was later exonerated.
In September 2007, at age 14, outside his house in his pajamas he approached a policeman conducting a neighborhood investigation to ask what was going on.
Blind in one eye, Sanford also was enrolled in special education classes due to a learning disability and was functionally illiterate.
Although the young teen showed no visible blood or gunshot residue to link him with the slaying of four persons in a nearby drug house, police decided to take him in for questioning about the crimes; he initially refused, but was persuaded by his grandmother and mother to go with the police.
Over a two-day interrogation, unaccompanied by a parent or attorney, the young teen first signed an early-morning confession saying he had been present when the murders were being planned; he later said he thought doing so would end the questions and allow him to return home.
Many hours deeper into the questioning, he signed a more detailed late-evening confession. (A judge reviewing the case would conclude the police had supplied the only correct details in the confession; Sanford’s contributions had all been inaccurate.)
Despite obvious problems with the prosecution’s case, the teen was put on trial for four counts of first-degree murder; his lawyer, later suspended from practice, failed to even try to suppress Davontae’s dubious confessions or vigorously cross-examine the police who helped concoct them.
Midway through the trial, Davontae decided to plead guilty to lowered charges (second-degree murder and a single firearms count). In April 2008, he was sentenced, at age 15, to a total of between 37 and 90 years to be served concurrently in state prison.
A few weeks later, Detroit police arrested 27-year-old Vincent Smothers, a self-described hitman, on other charges. During questioning, Smothers confessed to a dozen murders, including those for which Sanford had been convicted and sentenced. The hitman would eventually be sentenced to between 50 and 100 years for multiple homicides, but he was not charged with the crimes for which Davontae Sanford was already doing time.
Years of legal appeals followed, with better lawyers representing Sanford. Eventually, after the Michigan state police investigated Detroit police conduct in Sanford’s case, prosecutors recommended his exoneration and release, which came in July 2016. Under a recent Michigan law making wrongly convicted inmates eligible for $50,000 compensation per year of incarceration, Sanford’s new lawyers obtained a $408,000 award for him.
But a separate lawsuit against the city of Detroit for alleged misconduct in Sanford’s prosecution didn’t fare so well. A federal judge recently ruled that Sanford couldn’t recover on that claim, because the city had attained the legal shelter of bankruptcy, for which it had filed in 2013.
However, the judge’s decision did allow claims to proceed against two Detroit policemen for alleged misconduct in Sanford’s investigation and prosecution.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.