Over the past three years, we’ve discussed the troubling case of Davontae Sanford several times. As you may recall, Davontae was taken into police custody in Detroit at the age of 14 for the murder of four people. We’re told that Davontae, who is developmentally disabled, and blind in one eye, confessed to the murders. Defense attorney Kim McGinnis describes the series of events leading up to his confession like this:
“Davontae saw the police lights after the killings were discovered around the corner from his house, and walked up to the police to find out what was going on. They told him, ‘You know what’s going on,’ and took him downtown. Twenty hours later, he signed a confession which contained only the details that the police already knew at the time.”
Davontae, who read at a third-grade level at the time of his arrest, signed and initialed a typewritten confession given to him by a detective. No video of his questioning, which took place without the presence of his mother or legal council, exists. And, in his signed confession, Davontae claimed that he’d committed the murders with a different weapon than the one which was actually used by the killer. In spite of this, however, Davontae was convicted and sent to prison, where he’s been sentenced to serve from thirty-seven to ninety years. And, that’s not the worst of it. Just months after being sent to prison, an imprisoned hit man by the name of Vincent Smothers confessed to having committed the drug-related killings. Furthermore, he says Davontae had nothing to do with it.
Everyone, it would seem, knows that this young man is innocent, and yet he remains in prison. I’ve been in contact with his mother, Taminko Sanford, over the years, trying as best that I can to point her toward resources, like The Innocence Project, but it seemed, until recently, that nothing was working. While a few articles were written on blogs, like this one, and in the Detroit papers, it didn’t look as though anyone from outside of the region really cared. According to Taminko, though, that’s finally starting to change. Several months ago, in a comment left on this site, she mentioned that Dateline NBC had expressed interest, and just a few weeks ago, she told us about an article that was being written for The New Yorker. Well it looks as though that story is now out. While the article itself is only available online to subscribers of The New Yorker, or those willing to purchase an electronic copy, the author has a blog post about the piece, which can be found here… Here’s a clip.
…Over the course of several hours (with the police), he started talking and telling stories. At first he said that four friends had committed the crime. He was released in the morning, but taken back to the police station at the end of the day. This time, he declared that he had committed the murders himself and drew an accurate sketch of the crime scene. He was then transported to another station, where his second statement was videotaped.
In the videotape, he appears to have no sense of the stakes; he enters the room, smiles, and plays with what may be a one-way mirror until the detective interviewing him, Sergeant Michael Russell, comes in. When asked his constitutional rights, he rattles them off so perfectly that Russell says with a smile, “O.K., almost sounds like you’re reading it.” Then, in the clip shown above, Russell reads the statement, asking him questions. Sanford answers “yes” and “no,” rarely saying more and, once, putting his head in his hands. “I wanted everything to be right, because if it wasn’t right, he wasn’t going to believe me and he would keep me longer,” Sanford later told me. “I really wanted to go home.” After the videotape was played at his trial, six months later, Sanford pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree murder and was later sentenced to thirty-seven to ninety years in prison.
A couple of weeks after his sentencing, however, another man—Smothers—confessed to the same murders. Unlike Sanford’s interrogation, Smothers’s interrogation, as well as his confession, was taped. And in the videotape, as he is being interviewed about a different hit, he confesses to the Runyon (Street) murders, without prompting, recalling details specific to the scene. He names an accomplice, but he never mentions Sanford.
Which confessor was actually there? The hit man, or the fourteen-year-old with no real criminal past who had a reputation for making things up and talking big at school? Within weeks of his arrest, Sanford recanted his confession, saying he’d made up the story and that the police had told him key details about the crime. Smothers has stuck to his story. Ballistics evidence at Runyon Street has also been linked to Smothers and the accomplice Smothers named: a bullet fired at Runyon came from the same gun that Smothers had used in a different hit.
Perhaps Sanford was there with Smothers and his accomplice? That seems unlikely, since a witness saw only two masked figures fleeing the scene, and an investigator for the prosecution could not connect the kid to Smothers or the accomplice. To credit this scenario, you would have to believe that a seasoned hit man like Smothers, who took pride in his meticulousness and discipline, would rely on a half-blind, learning-disabled minor. You also have to believe that that fourteen-year-old, prone to braggadocio, would then exercise impressive discipline by not mentioning that he’d once worked with a hit man—street cred that could come in handy in prison. Sanford was recorded on many occasions without his apparent knowledge, yet the prosecution offered no evidence suggesting that he knew Smothers.
It’s hard to know what the Wayne County prosecutor believes, because her office never offered a coherent theory of the case, at times suggesting that Smothers wasn’t at Runyon and, at other times, that he worked with Sanford. She declined to discuss the case because Sanford is still trying to appeal his plea. Sanford felt hopeful when Smothers first confessed and Michigan’s Court of Appeals ordered proceedings to determine whether he might be innocent. His prospects seemed even brighter when a former homicide cop, who is close to his family, testified that Sanford was with him at the time of the shootings and a key witness testified that the shooters fleeing the crime were taller than Davontae was at the time. But later, the alibi witness was convincingly discredited.
The judge who presided over Sanford’s trial and subsequent “innocence hearing” rejected Sanford’s bid to withdraw his plea, and it is now up to Michigan’s Court of Appeals to decide whether that decision should stand. Even if the court finds in Sanford’s favor, the state has the right to prosecute Sanford again, with Smothers’s confession to the Runyon homicides as part of the record. “Davontae has been railroaded,” Smothers told me, adding later: “The police and the prosecutor can say whatever they want, but they knew he was innocent. They started the coverup from day one.”
And here’s the video which was mentioned above, of the arresting officer reading back the typewritten confession to Davontae.
Let’s hope, finally, this brings about some positive action in the case.
Our thoughts are with you, Davontae and Taminko.
note: For those of you who are so inclined, I understand from my friend Christine Moellering, who is also in contact with Taminko, that Davontae appreciates books and letters. His address is:
MDOC ID: 684070
Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility
1576 West Blue Water Highway
Ionia, MI 48846
And the rules for sending packages to inmates in the state of Michigan can be found here.
And, just in case you didn’t find this story heartbreaking enough, here’s a Facebook update from Taminko this summer.