Detroit Man Wrongly Convicted of Murders When He Was 15 Freed After Serving 9 Years

Davontae Sanford was 15 when he was imprisoned for murders he did not commit.

June 8, 2016, 11:46 AM

— -- A Detroit man who was incarcerated after being wrongly convicted of four murders is walking free today, after serving nearly nine years of a sentence he received at the age of 15.

The murder convictions for Davontae Sanford, now 23, have been vacated by Judge Brian Sullivan, and all charges dropped against him, Maria Miller, an assistant prosecuting attorney at the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, told ABC News today.

Sanford was serving a 37-to-90-year sentence for a quadruple homicide he was convicted of in 2008, his attorneys said. Sanford was 14 years old when he pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree homicide at the advice of a now-suspended attorney.

Heidi A. Naasko, a pro bono attorney for Sanford, told ABC News today that a hit man, Vincent Smothers, confessed to 12 murders two weeks after Sanford was sentenced in 2008.

The hit man was convicted of eight of the murders he confessed to, "but the remaining four he was not charged with because those were the murders that Davontae had confessed to," Naasko explained. "A year ago, the Michigan State Police did a reinvestigation of the case. It was very thorough. It took a year to do."

The reinvestigation into the murders, called the Runyon Street homicides, revealed major gaps in Sanford's confession, given when he was only 14.

A turning point arrived when investigators realized that it was former Detective James Tolbert of the Detroit Police Department who drew a diagram of the crime scene, not Sanford, as the original investigators alleged.

"Tolbert had in earlier testimony said that Davontae had drawn the diagram of the house where the murder took place, but during the police investigation, he changed his story and said, 'No, I drew the house.'" Naasko said. "It was a direct contradiction to his testimony on the record."

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office confirmed that account, noting, "former Deputy Chief James Tolbert contradicts his sworn testimony that Davontae Sanford drew the entire diagram of the crime scene, including the location of the victims' bodies, while being questioned by the police. This called into question Tolbert’s credibility in the case."

"Judge Brian Sullivan signed an order vacating Sanford’s conviction and sentence and directing that the Michigan Department of Corrections immediately release Sanford on his own recognizance," the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Naasko said they are trying to pick up Sanford today, and she cannot wait to see him walk free. "We are just thrilled with the outcome," she said.

"If everyone doesn't have access to justice, there is no justice system," Naasko said.