Detroit News video of Davontae’s words during June 9 press conference.
14-year-old child now a composed, articulate young man moving ahead
“Keep fighting, don’t’ give up, don’t roll over, don’t let them break you”—Sanford
“Keep us in your prayers, especially Davontae. He’s had his whole childhood taken away”—Mother Taminko Sanford-Tilmon
“The people of Wayne County should be ashamed of what Kym Worthy said at her smoke and mirrors press conference today, still blaming a 14-year-old child”—Bill Proctor
Mother asks for prayers for real killer, Vincent Smothers, whose confession helped exonerate Sanford
By Diane Bukowski
June 11, 2016
DETROIT – “It’s a great time to be alive,” exulted a beaming Davontae Sanford, 23, gathered on stage with his family for a press conference in Detroit June 9 celebrating his exoneration and release from nine years of wrongful incarceration.
Gone was the 14-year-old child Detroit police had duped into confessing to four drug house murders on Runyon Street in 2007, who could barely read and write. In his place was a mature, composed, articulate, handsome young man who thanked his family, especially his mother, and supporters across the world, while calling attention to the plight of other juveniles still unjustly incarcerated.
“Keep fighting, don’t give up, don’t roll over, don’t let them break you,” Sanford said. “I was at the breaking point many times, but I stayed positive. I had no choice but to grow, to learn, and to read. There are juveniles who are sentenced to 30 to 40 years at 16 years old. There are no programs for them. There is violence. The mental health treatment is terrible. My mother kept me going, and I received letters from people all over the world who told me, ‘You ARE getting out of prison.’”
Sanford said there were of course times he was angry about his situation, but he stressed, “Now it is time to get my life back on track.”
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan vacated Sanford’s 37-90 year sentence June 7 and ordered his immediate release. Sullivan first sentenced Sanford on April 4, 2008, two weeks before admitted hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the Runyon Street murders along with eight other killings, a confession that has been known all along to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
Smothers, now serving 50-100 years for eight other murders, has since repeatedly offered to testify to Sanford’s absolute innocence, even waiving his Fifth Amendment rights, despite the danger he faces in prison for naming his accomplice. He was barred by Sullivan and Worthy from doing so during years of post-conviction hearings, until a 2013 appeals court decision ordering Sullivan to allow Smothers or his attorney Gabi Silver, and experts on false confessions, to testify. The Michigan Supreme Court later overturned the Appeals Court ruling.
Detroit Police Investigator Ira Todd, who took Smothers’ confession to all 12 murders, sued the Detroit Police Department for demoting him because he would not let Smothers’ confession be buried. Judge Sullivan barred him from testifying during post-conviction hearings.
“I understand what prison life is like; it’s miserable,” Smothers told AP reporter Ed White. “To be here and be innocent – I don’t know what it’s like. He’s a kid, and I hate for him to do the kind of time they’re giving him.”
Sanford’s mother and stepfather Taminko Sanford-Tilmon and Jermaine Tilmon, along with his sisters Deshonda Davis and LaMaze Sanford, brother DeShon Davis, and 5-year-old nephew Omari Sanford, flanked him as he spoke. The entire family waged the struggle for his exoneration, holding rallies, prayer breakfasts, and contacting supporters.
Sanford’s case became a cause celebre across the world.
Also on stage were Bishop Daryl Harris of Total Life Ministries, Apostle W.J. Rideout III, family attorney Valerie Lewis, and Swift Justice Initiative producer Bill Proctor.
“There were days I thought I wouldn’t make it,” Sanford-Tilmon said. “Now I’ve been lying in bed and crying with joy. Davontae’s had to tell me, Mama, let go my hand. Keep us in your prayers, especially Davontae. He’s had his whole childhood taken away. We don’t take that lightly. Keep Smothers in your prayers also. It took him to do the right thing to get Davontae out.”
She thanked numerous supporters including the attorney Newman, Smothers’ attorney Gabi Silver, various members of the media, Roberto Guzman of the Coalition to Free the Wrongfully Convicted, and others.
Bill Proctor, formerly a Detroit Channel 7 News investigative reporter, said he was the first to go to the editorial boards of Detroit’s media to tell them the truth about the Runyon Street killings, early on.
“The people of Wayne County should be ashamed of what [Worthy] said at her hour-long smoke and mirrors press conference today, still blaming a 14-year-old child,” Proctor said. “This was an orchestrated prosecution. It did nothing to bring justice to the families of the four people who died. The police and the prosecutor got together to put a child in prison. [Worthy] had the authority, which she did not use, to go to the Chief Judge and others to put an end to this. Nine years later, that child is 23, and Kym Worthy bears much of the responsibility.”
Worthy spent most of her press conference that morning displaying pictures of the four people killed on Runyon Street and selectively presenting every detail of evidence she used to keep Sanford in prison while claiming Smothers’ confession was insufficient. But even Smothers’ sentencing judge Craig Strong noted the absence of the Runyon Street murders during his 2008 sentencing for the other eight murders, and called on Smothers to make things right for Sanford. (See video below.)
About 10 Detroit police Gang Squad officers stood outside the entrance to the Sanford press conference, reportedly because family members of those killed had threatened Sanford. Below are photos of the victims, who Worthy focused on, falsely implying still that Sanford was involved in their deaths. Worthy showed these photos during her press conference, streamed live on every station. She never admitted that the MSP investigation showed that Smothers and Ernest Davis were the real killers.
“[Worthy] structured the 50-100 year deal that Smothers got, purposely leaving out the four Runyon Street killings,” Proctor told VOD. “What Kym Worthy did today in more than an hour of explanation of minutiae in the case, was leave out many of the elements. She casually mentioned the fact that Davontae named three accomplices in his confession, but she didn’t say the Detroit Police found them, talked to them and cleared them, for example.”
Wayne Walker commented on Facebook, “Kym Worthy I’m blaming you for sending that kid to prison for nine years of his life knowing damn well he didn’t do all of those killings, ESPECIALLY when the killer confessed back in 2008, you could have let the young man out on bail as y’all investigated. But he was young poor and Black, and you wanted another ‘case closed’ on your record. Because to the prosecution’s office, that ‘any n—- will do’ attitude still exists.”
In an 32-page affidavit attached to the 2015 Innocence Clinics’ motion for relief from judgment, Smothers said, “I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Davontae Sanford was not involved in the September 17, 2007 murders at Runyon Street in any way. . . Before my arrest by the Detroit Police Department in April of 2008, I had never met, spoken with, or even heard of Davontae Sanford or anyone connected to him. Davontae Sanford is being wrongly incarcerated for crimes that I know he did not commit.”
Smothers said in the affidavit, dated March 6, 2015 that he “repeatedly and consistently confessed to the Runyon Street murders for seven years,” to Ira Todd of the Detroit Police Department, Kentucky detectives who were tracking James Davis, the brother of his accomplice Ernest Davis, Michigan State police detectives, his attorney Gabi Silver and defense investigator Linda Borus, in addition to the officers present April 19, 2008.
He says he at first did not agree to take the stand himself because he feared for the safety of his wife and children if he was portrayed as a “snitch.”
But, he goes on, “I am now willing to testify in court that I committed the Runyon murders with Nemo . . . I am frustrated that repeatedly telling the truth about these crimes for nearly seven years, Davontae Sanford is still wrongfully incarcerated for crimes he did not commit.”
Read his detailed confession at Smothers aff 3 6 13.compressed/.
Sanford’s time in prison was brutal. From the age of 15, he spent eight years at Michigan’s Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility, at Level 5, the highest security classification in the state. He spent 23 hours a day in isolation. For part of the time, he was confined to a section that was the subject of a 2014 lawsuit by two prisoners, Michael Robinson and Dayon King, which is still ongoing.
“Conditions at ICF’s Maximum Security Unit are harsh,” attorney Nakish Chaney wrote in the lawsuit. “However, for prisoners who filed complaints against corrections officers, the imposed conditions of confinement far exceed the ordinary hardships of prison life. These conditions include unprovoked beatings, gassings, forced cell extractions, food and water deprivation, extended deprivation of basic hygiene and health care, and fabricated misconduct tickets that result in long periods of isolation and other punitive conditions.”
In 2013, Davontae wrote to his mother, “I am writing to let you know that the only reason why I haven’t been calling you or nobody else is because I’ve been going through a whole lot with these officers. They’ve been messing over me, taking my food, my showers, and I was hogtied for days at a time. They’ve been harassing me every chance they get.”
Paralegl Roberto Guzman told Sanford from the audience, “I see a phoenix rising after your very long journey. You still have the support of all of us.”
He attended the press conference with a glowing Sherena Cotton, mother of Marvin Cotton. Guzman helped Cotton win a new trial, and his mother said he is expected to have an evidentiary hearing shortly.
Attorney Newman said members of the media have been swamping the Sanford-Tilmon household and asked them to keep away to give Davontae and his family time to heal.
“Davontae deserves enormous credit, going in at such a young age, then short and vulnerable,” she said. “He could have chosen to let prison time do him but he chose a different path. It is a great testament to his character that he stands before you now, so composed, so confident.”
Worthy contended untruthfully during her press conference that her refusal to withdraw charges against Sanford was backed by every court. However, the Sept. 28, 2013 Appeals Court ruling remanding the case back to Sullivan was scathing, criticizing Sullivan’s ruling that Sanford’s attorney Kim McGinnis had not presented enough evidence to support his claim of innocence in order to overturn his guilty plea.
The panel ruled in summary, “[W]e vacate the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea and remand for further proceedings regarding the admissibility of Dr. Fulero’s and Ira Todd’s proposed expert testimony on false confessions and police interrogation techniques . . . and for reconsideration of defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea after affording defendant an opportunity (1) to present attorney Gabi Silver’s testimony regarding Smothers’ statements to her concerning the Runyon Street homicides . . . (2) to present expert testimony that satisfies the remaining requirements of MRE 702 . . . (3) to obtain discovery of Smothers’s other homicide case files and to present admissible evidence revealed by that discovery . . . .and (4) allow Smothers the opportunity to testify if he does not exercise his rights under the Fifth Amendment.”
The court blamed the prosecution, stating, “The error in excluding Silver’s testimony [on behalf of Smothers] was not harmless. . .The reliability of Smothers’ confession to the Runyon Street homicides was the most significant evidence in defendant’s actual innocence proceeding. The trial court was not convinced that Smothers’ statements to Williams were sufficiently clear and convincing to establish that Smothers, not defendant, was the perpetrator. But neither Williams nor any other officer thoroughly questioned Smothers about the Runyon Street homicides. There is a high likelihood that Silver’s testimony would have provided more details of Smothers’ purported involvement in the Runyon Street homicides.”
It also said the Prosecutor’s office could have offered Smothers immunity in return for his testimony, in order to allow his cross-examination.
“The prosecutor’s fairness argument is somewhat disingenuous because the prosecutor could avoid any perceived disadvantage by petitioning for use immunity under MCL 767.6,” the court said. “ . . . .However, the prosecutor’s own unwillingness to request use immunity for Smothers’s testimony, despite the prosecution’s position that Smothers was not involved in the Runyon Street homicides, is the barrier to cross-examination of Smothers.” To view complete ruling, click on http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Sanford-COA-3.pdf.
The Michigan Supreme Court later overturned the Appeals Court decision, ruling that Sanford’s case could be brought back instead on a motion for relief from judgment. That motion was filed last year by various attorneys. Worthy further prolonged Sanford’s incarceration by having the Michigan State Police re-investigate the case for over a year.
She still has not taken action on the MSP’s recommendation that charges be brought against Smothers and his accomplice Earnest Davis in the Runyon Street murders, or against Detroit police detective James Tolbert, who took Sanford’s initial confession. He was fired as Chief of Police in Flint in 2015.
During his interview with the MSP, Tolbert contradicted his earlier sworn testimony that Sanford drew a map of the house where the killings took place, saying instead that he himself drew the map and Sanford placed the bodies. Worthy claimed this was the single “building block” that convinced her to agree to dismiss charges against Sanford, despite the existence of forensic and ballistics evidence that showed Sanford mis-identified the guns used in the Runyon Street killings, and a detailed 24-page confession from Smothers.
Worthy mentioned nothing about investigating and charging the parties who hired Smothers to carry out the Runyon Street killings. In his March 6, 2015 confession, Smothers named the prime party as drug dealer Delano “Lano” Thomas, who is now deceased. He named a key party connected with Thomas, who was the individual who recruited him for most of the hits. During his investigation, Todd had reported a drug connection linking Smothers’ accomplice Davis with dealers in Kentucky. Smothers also carried out a paid hit on Rose Cobb, the wife of a police officer, leading some to speculate that he may have been connected to the DPD as well.
During her press conference, Worthy also referred to alleged “perjured alibi” testimony by former Detroit Police Homicide Chief William Rice, who said Davontae was with him and Davontae’s aunt Cheryl Sanford at the time of the killings. The prosecution presented a so-called “expert” witness to testify that cell phone tower “pings” from Rice’s phone contradicted his testimony.
Sanford’s attorney at the time, Kim McGinnis, challenged the expert’s credentials and said that such cell phone tower evidence has been proven unreliable.
Rice is now serving a term of two to 20 years in prison on two counts of perjury in a court proceeding and one count of conducting a criminal enterprise. Worthy charged him shortly after he testified on behalf of Sanford. She also charged Cheryl Sanford, who received probation in connection with the criminal enterprise charges.
During the press conference, Ken Wyniemko, who was exonerated after 10 years in prison due to a wrongful conviction, expressed his support for Sanford and his family. He is a board member of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, of Proving Innocence, Inc., and Commissioner with the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Innocence Project.
“I have dedicated myself to helping other men and women who have been wrongfully convicted,” he said.
Wyniemko said he and Stephanie Chang are campaigning for passage of two bills in the Michigan House and Senate that would compensate such exonerees. They are HB 4536 and SB 291. The Senate enrolled bill, which includes elements of the House Bill, was approved June 9, 2016, by a wide margin.
That bill is at http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/2015-SEBS-0291.pdf.
Advocate W.J. Rideout III called on the state’s universities to offer scholarships to Sanford, and Attorney Newman called on the public to support a GoFundMe site set up to help Davontae move forward in his new life financially. VOD will publish a link to that site after it has been located.
VOD stories on juvenile lifers, who Davontae Sanford pledged to support: