Davontae Sanford, who falsely confessed, and was wrongfully convicted, in the shooting deaths of four people in 2007 when he was 14-years-old — despite a full confession from another man — walked out of prison a free man on Wednesday. For nearly eight years, lawyers and advocates have been fighting to get Davontae exonerated and released from prison, and this week, all of their hard work finally paid off.
When Davontae Sanford was 14-years-old — blind in one eye, and developmentally disabled — he was confronted by Detroit police officers in the drug den slaying of four people. According to a court brief by Davontae’s lawyer, the cops forcefully accused the teenager of the murders, saying “you better tell us what you know,” and “we know you did it now.” Sanford was then transported to a police station where, under duress and without a lawyer or parent present, he confessed to the murders. However, Davontae’s attorneys wrote last year that the confession given by the teen wasn’t at all accurate.
“[Davontae’s confession included] no accurate facts about the killings whatsoever other than the information that his interrogator already knew.”
Davontae Sanford was then arrested and remanded to juvenile detention, where he spoke with court-appointed psychologist Dr. Lynne Schwartz. Davontae told Dr. Schwartz that in regards to his confession, he had “just made something up,” hoping that the police would let him go home after he confessed, as they told him they would.
In April of 2008, a judge convicted Davontae Sanford of the quadruple homicide, and sentenced him to four concurrent terms of 37 to 90 years in prison.
Just two weeks after Davontae’s sentencing, another man, Vincent Smothers — a self-proclaimed hitman — confessed to the four murders that Davontae Sanford had been convicted of carrying out. Smothers, who is currently serving a 50-100 year prison sentence for his role in eight other murders, wrote recently about his confessions to the drug den murders. According to the Guardian, Smothers also said that the prosecutor in Davontae’s case offered him a plea deal if he agreed not to testify on behalf of Sanford. Smothers declined the plea deal, and even told his story to the New Yorker in 2012, in the hopes of helping to exonerate Davontae.
“During the past seven years, I have consistently and repeatedly stated that I committed the murders on Runyon Street in September 2007 and that Davontae Sanford was not involved.
“It seemed ludicrous to me that the state would actually go this far to make sure Davontae Sanford remained in prison for crimes I committed and confessed to.”
From honors student to Detroit hit man: Nadya Labi traces Vincent Smothers' evolution into an assassin (sub req): http://t.co/K4JGB9IN— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) October 14, 2012
This past week, police finished a nearly year-long investigation into Davontae Sanford’s case, which found that a high-ranking Detroit police officer, deputy chief James Tolbert, had contradicted his own testimony in Davontae’s case. In his sworn testimony, Tolbert had said that Davontae drew officers a diagram of the crime scene — including placement of the bodies. However, upon cross-examination, he said “I don’t know,” and “I can’t recall exactly” whether or not Davontae had, in fact, drawn the entire diagram on his own.
Prosecutors quickly moved to dismiss Davontae’s case, and on Tuesday, Judge Brian Sullivan exonerated the now 23-year-old, vacated his sentence, and ordered him released from prison immediately, reports People. In a statement released on Wednesday, Davontae’s family thanked attorneys and police investigators for their tireless work over the years in getting Davontae exonerated.
“Davontae’s family, friends and supporters knew from the outset that he was innocent and wrongfully convicted. As the judge’s order confirms, Davontae had nothing to do with these murders. We are grateful to those who have fought for many years on Davontae’s behalf and thankful to soon have Davontae home with us.”
After spending nine years behind bars, 23-year-old Davontae Sanford — a naive 14-year-old when he entered the prison system — finally got to walk out of prison on Wednesday, a grown man, but a free one.
[Photo by AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File]