Davontae Staford, framed for four murders at the age of 14, is scheduled to return home tomorrow after serving nearly 9 years in prison


Over the past five years, I’ve written quite a bit on this site about a young man by the name of Davontae Sanford. As you may recall, Davontae, who is developmentally disabled and blind in one eye, was taken into police custody in Detroit at the age of 14 for the murder of four people and eventually sentenced to serve from thirty-seven to ninety years. This, as you might also recall, happened in spite of the fact that he was questioned for hours on end without the presence of his mother or legal council, and signed a typed confession stating that he’d committed the murders with a different weapon than the one which was actually used by the killer. [It’s also worth noting that Davontae was reading at a third grade reading level at the time of his arrest, and that his interview with Detroit detectives was not taped.]

Defense attorney Kim McGinnis described 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.”

So essentially the police typed up the facts of the case as they knew them at the time, and gave them to a learning disabled 14 year old to sign, telling him that, if he did, he could go home… Instead, he went to prison.

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 himself. Furthermore, he told authorities Davontae had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Everyone, in other words, has known for years, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this young man is innocent, and yet he remained in prison.

In spite of incredible coverage in The New Yorker about Davontae’s case and an interview with the man who actually committed the murders, he remained in prison for nearly nine years… Well, that will all apparently end tomorrow, when Davontae will be released from prison thanks to a court order signed by Wayne County Third Circuit Court Judge Brian Sullivan vacating the conviction and sentence.

How this young man was allowed to stay in prison for nearly nine years is absolutely criminal, and one would hope that, in time, those responsible for his incarceration are themselves brought to justice. A 14 year old boy with a learning disability should never have been questioned without representation. And, once it became known that Vincent Smothers was the true killer, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office should have started fighting to ensure that justice was done. Instead, by all accounts, they fought to keep their conviction from being overturned. Books should be written about this case. And people should go to jail. What happened to this young man should never have happened in America.

And people wonder why young black men are raised to distrust the police…

[Here, for those of you who are interested, are some of our earlier posts on the Davontae Sanford case: The strange case of Davontae Sanford; Davontae Sanford, in prison for murders he almost certainly didn’t commit, finally gets national exposure in The New Yorker; Making the front page of Reddit with my post on Davontae Sanford; Disturbing video surfaces of Davontae Sanford being forcefully subdued by prison guards at the age of 16.]

[note: In the photo above, you’ll notice the scar across Davonte’s ear. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a result of the incident that his mother told us about a few years ago in which Davontae’s head was slammed between a closing cell door and a wall.]

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised at how fast Judge Sullivan moved on it. I think he might be a little scared. I hope they’re investigating him along with the handful of others who made such an effort to frame him and keep anyone from questioning it.

    That retired cop, Rice, went to prison for trying to oppose them. Tominko’s house was illegally searched by several cops also.

    A lot of cops, attorneys and news people were threatened, and worse. I hope they all get a good looking at by state police and federal investigators.

    Anyway, I think it did help that people like yourself made the details of the case an easily searchable subject online. It made it easy to direct people to the few good articles written about it, such as the ones you posted.

  2. Jim
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for drawing attention to this case from the beginning! Although I’m sure that you are sickened by the injustice done to Davontae, I hope that you feel good about helping to free him.

  3. Eel
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    The Stanford swimmer got six months after being caught raping an unconscious woman. Davontae Sanford served nine years for a crime everyone knew he did not commit. That pretty much sums up the American justice system.

  4. Trinn Murray
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    2 words: Kim Worthy.

  5. Christine Moellering
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    It was a terrible miscarriage and they can’t take it back but at least they are letting him out. I think we should throw him a fundraiser to help him find a future.

  6. Teacher Patti
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I wonder what sort of after care programs there will be for him… He will need a lot of help!

  7. Mr. X
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Keep this in mind the next time the Republicans tell us that we need the death penalty in Michigan,

  8. site admin
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    From Shaka Senghor: “I swear Kym Worthy and her entire staff should be fired and sued for the hell they put this family through.”

  9. Lynne
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    If people knew about his innocence and did nothing, they should be criminally and civilly liable. WPart of the problem is that we incentivize convictions and don’t have any disincentives for when people get things wrong. We can change that system.

    Another thing we can do to give ourselves as taxpayers an incentive to make sure that there are no wrong convictions is to pass a law where the State of Michigan gives the wrongly convicted a huge sum of money. Enough that the wrongly convicted will think they were lucky to have been convicted. I am thinking of very punitive numbers such as $10million for every year in prison or something. It has to be big though. It has to be big enough that the average person gets upset about the increased taxes.

    OK, I know that is not realistic but it is just awful that the State of Michigan doesn’t have a formal way to compensate the improperly imprisoned.

  10. site admin
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Taminko Sanford-Tilmon: “My Baby Davontae Sanford on his way. First interview will air @ 6:30 channel 62. First press (conference) will be tomorrow 13560 McNicholas & Gratiot Matrix Center. Come show Davontae Sanford some Love n Support.”

  11. Janice Anschuetz
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this article. What a crime the police committed.

  12. Mr. X
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    He’s now out of prison.


  13. Cristina DiChiera
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible to send money to him and his family? Do you know? Is someone setting up a crowdfunding campaign for him? If you are actually close to this story, Mark – I will set it up.

  14. Posted June 8, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Someone posted a link last night to an online fundraising campaign for Davontae that was initiated by someone in New York. As I don’t know the person behind it, though, I’m hesitant to suggest that people send their money there. [https://goo.gl/tj7JJn] Let me reach out to Davonte’s mom and see what she thinks would be best, OK?

  15. Meta
    Posted June 8, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    From CNN:

    His exoneration came after Michigan State Police decided last year to reinvestigate the case. The agency recently submitted a report to the prosecutor’s office that recommended perjury charges against the Detroit officer who allegedly fabricated a version of Sanford’s guilty plea and assured him that he could go home if he confessed to the crimes.

    Sanford was freed per the order of Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has also agreed to dismiss all charges and will not retry him.

    Read more:

  16. Posted June 8, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    As I said above, how on earth can society even begin to repay him and his family? A house anywhere they want, some sort of lifetime income, therapy every single day for forever…how do you even start?

  17. 734
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I heard someone mention that he’d be getting $400,000 from the state.

  18. site admin
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    “I just want to try and put this behind me and move on with my life and move forward with my family… take one day at a time, one step at a time and just go from there.” – Davontae Sanford


  19. Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Here is a link to Kym Worthy’s LIVE press conference.


  20. Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Kym Worthy is now holding a press conference for the purpose of making it appear there was a real case against Davontae (http://www.wxyz.com/live2). She is clearly tryin g to place blame on Davontae’s mother now.

    It’s pure bullshit. Several police investigators immediately sounded the alarm that the Runyon Street murders were a professional hit and that Davontae was being deliberately framed to cover it. These officers were demoted, sanctioned and driven off the police force.

  21. Posted June 9, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Incredible moments:



  22. Mr. X
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    While I love the news footage of Sanford coming home, I can’t help but ask myself, “Where were they these past several years?” Where were all of these teary-eyed reporters, talking about how this is such an important thing to be covering when it first became known that Sanford was being held in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Why weren’t they on Kym Worthy’s front doorstep? I would have like to have seen them getting involved when it actually would have made a difference.

  23. Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Here is a link to Davontae’s familyLIVE press conference.


  24. Posted June 9, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Everything Kym Worthy said in her press conference today was all whitewash nonsense. She never mentioned Detroit Police Department Investigator Ira Todd, who was in 2008 very openly trying to bring attention to the fact that Smothers and Davis were the two gunman. The facts were clear then, as they are now. All the evidence pointed to Smothers and Davis as the gunmen. Absolutely none of the evidence pointed toward Davontae Sanford. Investigator Todd understood this, and he understood that Davontae was being deliberately framed to cover up a contract murder. In response, Todd was effectively silenced by his superiors in the Detroit Police Department, and threatened into quitting the force and disappearing into obscurity. None of this was brought up by anybody at the whitewash event today. Naturally they couldn’t bring it up, because it would have completely destroyed the entire line of pure bullshit the prosecutors office is apparently intent on selling.

  25. Erin
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    From what I heard on the news yesterday – there’s a bill being kicked around that would give compensation of $50,000 per year of incarceration to people who are found to be wrongfully convicted in the State of Michigan. I understood the report to be saying that Devontae would get $400,000 from the state if the bill were to pass legislation, but I don’t think his pay out is a given at this point.

    $50,000 a year doesn’t seem like enough, if it ever comes to fruition for him.

  26. Erin
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Math fail – that would be $450,000. Still not enough.

  27. Lynne
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Yeah $50k a year is no where near enough. $50 million a year would be though.

  28. iRobert
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    There is no fucking chance in hell that experienced cops, prosecutors and the judge didn’t recognize exactly what was going on when they had a 14 year old, half blind and learning disabled boy in front of them, upon which they were pinning a cold-blooded, systematic execution of four people. The contradictions were glaring since day one, and at every point through the entire railroading of this kid. As pathetic as they all are as public servants, nobody in that entire process is that fucking stupid and inexperienced. I guarantee it. They knew exactly what was going on, and what part in it they were playing. Now it’s “cover your ass” time. That’s all they can do at this point.

  29. greater 734
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Not sure this is an angle worth discussing, and I wouldn’t dream of posting it on MLive for the trumpish trolls that hang out under that rock, but here goes…

    Most of my Michigan news now comes from this site (ie I don’t read local papers or watch TV news), so I had to follow some of the links in the comments here to remember that Kwame Kilpatrick was the mayor of Detroit when Sanford was arrested, which might provide an answer to the ‘how the hell could this happen?’ question. Oh yeah, I thought, remember the corruption, the coverups — which weren’t just about making a buck or sexting (how quaint!) but also about people losing their jobs, their liberty, maybe even their lives.

    But labelling it a “Kwame story” doesn’t begin to account for the other question — “how the hell did it take so long to fix it?” And my deeper question is whether and how to understand this as a Michigan story — in light of the events of the past three years or so, the corruption, denial, coverup that had thousands of people drinking poisoned water despite their immediate and vehement insistence (and visible evidence) that something was terribly wrong.

    Kwame Kilpatrick and Rick Snyder could hardly be further apart in terms of their demeanor and management style, but the result is kinda similar. I think?

    I was actually relieved a few years ago when Michigan was ranked at the bottom (or top) of a list of most corrupt, least transparent states, because my partner kept trying to tell me that these things happen everywhere. That survey reassured me that they don’t — at least not this bad, not “nearly nine years” bad.

    Why do they happen in Michigan?

    Also, Mark, I appreciate your role in publicizing this story. It’s a real community service — that we used to call journalism. (Does anyone remember the name of that local TV news reporter who used to follow Kwame around asking him questions, until he was abruptly FIRED and never replaced?)

  30. Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    WJBK’s Davontae Sanford investigation special


  31. Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The previous commenter, Greater 734, poses some interesting questions. And there IS an interesting Flint connection. Take a look at this:


  32. Posted July 13, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    As you can see, the officials involved in the deliberate frame-up are protecting each other now.

    From the Detroit News today:


    Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Tuesday she would not charge a former Detroit police official with perjury, meaning he will not be tried for allegedly lying under oath about evidence that helped put a 14-year-old in prison for a crime he did not commit.

    Worthy said last month she was prompted to request murder charges be dropped against Davontae Sanford, who had spent eight years in prison, after discovering former Deputy Chief James Tolbert had allegedly lied about who drew a diagram of a 2007 quadruple homicide scene on Runyon.

    Worthy said “the most significant” reason she declined to charge Tolbert was Sanford’s refusal to testify against the former cop.

    However, Sanford’s attorney, Valerie Newman, said Worthy’s statement “is not accurate,” adding Sanford’s attorneys at Dykema Gossett made it clear to prosecutors he would testify as soon as the charges against him were formally dropped.

    Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan vacated Sanford’s sentence on the same day prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him, but he has yet to approve the prosecutors’ motion. Court officials said the delay was because the judge is reviewing unspecified documents.

    State police had urged the filing of perjury charges against Tolbert after he told them he had drawn a crime scene sketch. His statement, made while he was Flint’s police chief, contradicted his July 13, 2010, testimony during an evidentiary hearing, in which he said Sanford had drawn the diagram.

    Worthy said the crime scene map was “a major building block” in her case against Sanford, who was convicted of murder before being freed from prison on June 8.

    In a press release Tuesday, Worthy said she declined to bring charges against Tolbert because there weren’t any witnesses who would testify against him. The six-year statute of limitations on the charge was to expire Wednesday.

    “The building blocks of our case were severely undermined” by Tolbert’s interview with the Michigan State Police, Worthy said.

    “In order to proceed with perjury charges, we must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Tolbert’s testimony on July 13, 2010, was false. There were only three witnesses to the drawing of the sketch in question. Two of them, Davontae Sanford and James Tolbert, are unavailable to us.”

    Worthy said Sanford’s attorneys sent prosecutors a letter Monday explaining “until the charges are dismissed by order of the court, Mr. Sanford asserts his Fifth Amendment privilege and will not be testifying regarding any matter related to those charges.”

    Samuel Damren of Dykema Gossett said in a statement Tuesday after Worthy’s announcement that “Sanford indeed would be willing to testify after the charges against him were dismissed.”

    He added that his letter said “Mr. Sanford’s testimony would be ‘that contrary to Tolbert’s testimony before Judge Sullivan, James Tolbert drew the diagram of the house and Mr. Sanford drew the bodies based on information provided to him by the police because Mr. Sanford had no first-hand personal knowledge of his own as to their location.’ ”

    Tolbert could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Worthy said the third person who could have testified against Tolbert was the detective in charge of the case, Sgt. Michael Russell, “and his testimony does not support a perjury charge,” she said.

    Russell’s insistence under oath three times that Sanford had drawn the crime scene sketch was among the factors that prompted her to dismiss the perjury warrant request, Worthy said.

    “Russell’s testimony has been consistent, and when asked he said that he would not change his previous statements and testimony,” Worthy said.

    “In perjury cases, the most difficult burden on the prosecution is to prove that the defendant knowingly made a false statement,” Worthy wrote. “ … it is not sufficient to simply present evidence that the defendant contradicted his sworn testimony.”

    Attorney speaks out

    Newman said prosecutors served Sanford’s attorneys with an investigative subpoena Friday afternoon, compelling him to testify Monday.

    “The way Davontae has been treated by the prosecutor’s office, there’s no way as attorneys we would let our client testify when he’s still facing four murder charges that haven’t been dismissed,” she said.

    “They do not need Davontae to testify under an investigative subpoena. They have his lawyers’ statement that he will cooperate and will testify.

    “If they wanted to charge Tolbert, they could have charged him. And if prosecutors didn’t think the evidence was strong enough, why not just say that, without blaming Davontae, who has made it clear he’s willing to testify against Tolbert. He has never wavered that Tolbert drew the diagram.”

    University of Detroit Mercy School of Law professor Larry Dubin said the case has the feel of a “merry-go-round.”

    “If Sanford was willing to cooperate, but doesn’t want to before the case is dismissed, then it seems to me the crucial question is: What’s holding up the dismissal of the case?” he said. “Because if the case was dismissed, then the prosecutor, according to their explanation, could attempt to prove that Tolbert was guilty of providing false testimony. But they say they won’t because Sanford doesn’t want to testify before his case is dismissed. So it goes in circles.”

    Crime scene sketch

    When state police detectives interviewed Tolbert in October 2015, the former police official admitted he’d drawn the crime scene sketch.

    Since that contradicted his testimony in a July 13, 2010, evidentiary hearing during Sanford’s appeal, state police submitted a request for prosecutors to charge him with perjury. State police also asked for murder charges against three men they believe responsible for the four killings.

    According to Sanford and the police report, Sanford said Tolbert pressured him into helping with the crime scene sketch.

    “Tolbert came in with a piece of paper, and was like ‘Show me where the bodies was at,’ ” Sanford said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know where the bodies was at.’ That’s when he drew the whole diameter of the house. He was like, ‘If you show me where the bodies was at, I’ll make sure you go home.’

    “They had already showed me the pictures before (of the bodies), so I’m thinking like, ‘I know from these pictures where they were at, so maybe if I do this, I’ll go home. I just want to go home at this time.

    “So I did it, so once I did that and I signed it, he was like, ‘I told y’all. I told y’all.’ ”

    Tolbert’s testimony

    During the 2010 hearing, Tolbert testified he asked Sanford to draw the crime scene sketch the day after the Runyon killings.

    “My motive behind asking him to draw the crime scene (was) to see if he had any knowledge, down to the television and the positions of the (bodies),” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “If he did, in fact, see that, the only way he could have seen it (was) if he was in the house.”

    Sanford claims police had shown him pictures of the dead bodies before he was asked to draw the map. “I never will forget those pictures,” he said.

    During the hearing, Sullivan asked Tolbert: “Was this sketch done entirely in the defendant’s hand?”

    Tolbert replied: “Yes, it was.”

    When State Appellate Defender Office attorney Kim McGinnis asked Tolbert during cross-examination whether Sanford had drawn the map entirely, Tolbert answered: “I believe.”

    Tolbert also said he wasn’t sure if Sanford drew “hatch marks” to depict windows on the diagram.

    Similar sketches

    During the state investigation into the Runyon killings, Tolbert volunteered the information that led detectives to seek perjury charges against him, according to the state police report.

    Detective Sgt. Patrick Roti said in the report he phoned Tolbert on Sept. 22, 2015, and said they were reviewing the Sanford case. Tolbert said he’d be willing to meet.

    When they met Oct. 2, “Tolbert was asked about the sketch that Davontae Sanford had drawn,” Roti wrote. “Tolbert indicated he knew what we were talking about and voluntarily asked for a piece of paper to draw the sketch.”

    After Tolbert drew the diagram, Roti said it and the sketch attributed to Sanford “closely resembled each other.”

    “We asked Tolbert if he was the one who had actually drawn the ‘original sketch.’ Tolbert then acknowledge(d) to have drawn this ‘original sketch’ and Sanford only marked the location of the bodies within this sketch.”

    Roti said he was about to wrap up the interview when “Tolbert … grabbed the sketch he had drawn for us and crumpled the paper up and attempted to leave with it.

    “Investigators had to ask Tolbert for the sketch he crumpled up, to which he asked why,” Roti wrote. “It was then explained this would be part of our case and put into evidence.”


  33. Posted July 19, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink



    Of course they waited until they could no longer charge Tolbert for perjury



  34. 734
    Posted November 3, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    More sadness. Davontae’s step-father, Jermaine Tilmon, was murdered in Detroit last night.


  35. iRobert
    Posted January 15, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I just now saw this most recent post from 734. Floyd Darnell Nix Was arrested back in November of 2016 for the murder of Jermaine Tilmon. In October of 2017 Nix was convicted and sentenced to 25-60 years in prison.



  36. Posted April 2, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    From the Detroit News:

    Police official involved in Davontae Sanford case back on the job


  37. iRobert
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Here’s the interview with Davontae on American Black Journal:


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