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Davontae Sanford during a court appearance in Detroit in 2010.
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Two Confessions

One by a nervous kid. One by a self-styled hit man. A Detroit whodunnit.

We know more every day about the ways wrongful convictions happen. An indigent defendant gets an incompetent attorney. Or prosecutors hide exculpatory information from the defense. Perhaps there is a false confession, coerced by sly detectives, or undue reliance on faulty eyewitness testimony or junk forensic science. Maybe a key witness turns out to be an unreliable informant, or the jury or judge is racially biased. Often, it is some combination of these factors that puts an innocent person behind bars, sometimes for life.

What gets far less notice, however, is how wrongful convictions stay that way, even after evidence of injustice appears to bubble to the surface. This is why the already well-chronicled saga of Davontae Sanford, a 14-year-old boy convicted of a 2007 quadruple murder in Michigan, is worth following closely again as it enters its latest and most bizarre phase.

Later today, Sanford’s lawyers will ask a Michigan judge to grant their client a new trial based on evidence and arguments that state judges and county prosecutors have never before addressed. The defense team essentially will be asking Michigan’s criminal justice system to finally make a choice between two confessions to the same crime; one by a boy whose story was contradicted by independent evidence, the other by a professional killer who accurately told the police where to find the murder weapon.

The account that follows is based on court documents, media reports, and interviews with attorneys involved in the case.

Sanford’s Statements

Sanford was 14 years old on the night of September 17, 2007 when four people were murdered on Runyon Street in Detroit. He heard about the shooting and was in his pajamas when the police came around canvassing the neighborhood for information. At first, Sanford refused to cooperate with the police. But then his grandmother (and later his mother) allowed him to be transported to a police station where he was promptly tested for gunshot primer residue — a test that came back negative. Twice in the next 24 hours or so, Sanford, a minor, was questioned by the police without the presence of his parents or an attorney.

When he asked for a lawyer, the defense alleges, officers called him a “dumbass” and did not immediately read him his Miranda warning. And so Sanford, who was half-blind and had a moderate developmental disability that required him to take special education classes, offered up two “statements,” the second of which the police (and prosecutors and judges) later would characterize as a confession. In his first statement to the police, delivered in the wee hours of the morning, Sanford initially denied involvement but said that he knew others who might have been responsible for the murders.

The second statement came that evening, and it implicated four teenagers, all of whom subsequently provided valid alibis (and were never charged). He also identified guns that he said were used in the murders, although no bullet casings from guns of that type were found at the crime scene. This time Sanford offered a narrative in which he was one of the shooters and he helped the police sketch out the crime scene on paper. At one point during the questioning, a detective told Sanford that blood was found on his shoes, although there is no record of those shoes ever being tested for blood. As soon as Sanford was charged with murder, he told a psychologist that he had made it all up because the police had told him he could go home if he would “just [tell] them something.”

A Bungled Defense

Sanford’s luck then went from bad to worse. He was represented by Robert Slameka, an attorney with an extraordinary record of incompetence on behalf of his clients, who has since been suspended from practicing law in Michigan (effective May 1, 2015) after he was convicted of theft. Slameka didn’t seek to suppress Sanford’s dubious confessions even though his client’s age and developmental disabilities raised questions about the constitutionality of the interrogation.

Slameka also did not move to strike those statements from the case even after he was told by a psychologist, the one who had worked with Sanford in juvenile custody, about how shabbily Sanford had been treated by the police. Nor did the lawyer aggressively cross-examine the lead detective who had interrogated the young suspect throughout those two sessions. The question of the quality of this lawyer’s work, whether it constitutes “ineffective assistance of counsel” under current U.S. Supreme Court precedent, will be raised for the first time this week.

There was no gunshot residue on Sanford’s clothes or hands, but there was some on a pair of pants found in a closet that the teenager shared with others. And the lone witness who testified against him, a woman who had survived the massacre on Runyon Street, said only that one of the killers “sounded like a kid.” The case turned almost entirely on the confession, and as a result of it, and a hopeless defense case, Sanford pleaded guilty during his trial to four counts of second-degree murder. Even then, however, he couldn’t get his story straight. During his plea colloquy with the judge, he offered another inconsistent account of the murders, claiming that his cousins were involved. They, too, never were charged with the Runyon murders.

A Rival Confession

Vincent Smothers in July 2010.

On April 4 2008, Sanford was sentenced by a trial judge to four concurrent terms of 37 to 90 years in prison. Just two weeks later, Michigan police arrested a 27-year-old named Vincent Smothers on suspicion of murder. He, too, quickly confessed, not just to the crime for which he had been arrested but to 11 other murders. And he told the police that he and an accomplice, a man named Ernest “Nemo” Davis, had killed four people on Runyon Street in September 2007. The police now had two people, Sanford and Smothers, confessing to the same murders.

But there was almost nothing similar about the circumstances or the details of the two confessions. Whereas detectives had fed Sanford key details about the murders and had asked the teenager many yes-no questions, Smothers, a self-styled professional hit man, volunteered rich detail about the Runyon Street murders. He correctly identified the weapons used — the casings found at the crime scene during the Sanford investigation matched his account — and even told the police where to find one of the murder weapons, which they promptly did. Here is Smothers’ sworn affidavit, to be filed today in court.

When the police mentioned that Sanford already had confessed to the Runyon Street murders, Smothers told them that they had the wrong guy — that Smothers had nothing to do with Sanford, and would never use a kid to undertake his professional hits. Then prosecutors, Smothers alleges, offered him a deal of 50-100 years for his murders if he promised not to testify on behalf of Sanford. In other words, according to the hit man, prosecutors sought to silence Smothers because they feared his word about the Runyon Street murders would jeopardize Sanford’s conviction. Prosecutors told us Tuesday that there was no such agreement between them and Smothers — that they did not even make such a proposal to Smothers for him to turn down. Watch this video for a sense of the tension between Smothers, his judge, and prosecutors interacted with one another at his sentencing.

A Killer Tries to Have His Say

What happens next in the story helps us understand how cases like this linger for years. Sanford’s new attorneys, competent ones, quickly moved to withdraw his guilty plea even before they learned of Smothers’ confession to the Runyon Street murders. (They learned of it not from the police or prosecutors but from a journalist who had been covering the case). Wayne County Court Judge Brian R. Sullivan, the same judge who had sentenced Sanford, who had permitted his plea deal despite the inconsistencies in the young man’s story, who had tolerated the dubious lawyering Sanford received at trial, rejected the request without holding a hearing on it.

But he was reversed on appeal. And ultimately there was a hearing. Smothers invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent but authorized his attorney, and a defense investigator, to testify about what he had told them about his role in the Runyon murders. But Judge Sullivan, again on the bench, refused to allow the lawyer or the investigator to testify and even blocked Smothers from testifying when he subsequently sought to waive his Fifth Amendment right. Once again, the judge denied Sanford any relief. And once again, he was reversed on appeal.

This time, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the trial judge to give Smothers the opportunity to testify on behalf of Sanford and also to hear evidence about the coercive ways in which police interrogations of immature young suspects can result in false confessions. Prosecutors appealed this ruling, and last year, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the whole argument was procedurally flawed. If Sanford was claiming he is innocent, the state justices ruled, asking to withdraw his guilty plea was the wrong way to go about it.

What Sanford’s Lawyers Say

Defense attorneys argue that they have evidence and information that was not available in 2007 or 2008 that further implicates Smothers and exonerates Sanford in the Runyon Street murders. The details of the plea deal prosecutors allegedly offered Smothers, the one made conditional upon his silence in the Sanford case, has never before been addressed in court. Meanwhile, Smothers’ purported accomplice, Ernest Davis, shot and wounded a man in December 2012, a crime for which he will be imprisoned until 2018. Davis, like Smothers, has never been arrested or indicted for the Runyon Street murders.

And then there is the matter of the Sanford confessions themselves. The defense now says it has determined that every “true” fact in the young man’s statements was a fact known previously by the police and that every “false” fact in the statements was a fact that the police mistakenly thought to be true. On the contrary, Sanford’s lawyers say, Smothers’ confession labors under no such burden. He was telling the police details about the Runyon Street murders that they did not know, including where to find one of the murder weapons.

The defense also says the Michigan courts ought to take a closer look at the reliability and accuracy of the lone witness who testified against Sanford. She told the judge, remember, that she could not offer an eyewitness identification of the killers that night but that one of them sounded like a kid. If Sanford’s confession is no good, if it was a tale made up by an impressionable young man under duress wanting to go home after hours of interrogation, this testimony is really the only evidence keeping Sanford in prison for what likely will be the rest of his life.

What the Prosecutors Say

What do prosecutors say about Sanford and Smothers and whether justice has been done to either man? “There was never any agreement that was contingent upon Smother's (sic) silence about the Runyon homicides,” a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office told us Tuesday, which leaves the truth of the matter up to the Michigan courts. The last prosecution filing in this case took place 18 months ago, in December 2013, so it is hard to pin down where they stand on the newer details of the case. They are clear, however, on the core issues.

Sanford’s confession, they argue, was voluntary and accurate and subsequently buttressed by both the plea deal and other conduct that suggests evidence of his guilt. Sanford incriminated himself in telephone calls, prosecutors contend, both immediately after the Runyon Street murders and then months later, even after Smothers had confessed to those crimes. Why would he do that, they imply, if he truly was innocent of the murders and a victim of a coercive interrogation? They argue further that the reliability of Sanford’s confessions are less relevant now that he also has pleaded guilty — that the plea he made in open court essentially supersedes the statements he made after the murders.

At a minimum, prosecutors say, Sanford should be required to explain why he confessed to crimes he now says he did not commit. What does not readily appear in their last court filing (or any subsequent statement) is an unambiguous declaration that says that Vincent Smothers did not commit the Runyon Street murders (or, for that matter, that Davontae Sanford did). It has taken seven years just to get to this stage of this case, and there will likely be many more years of litigation to come before this excruciating process is over.