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Is Davontae Sanford in prison for a hit man's crimes?

Prison bars
Ken Mayer

A new chapter in a bizarre murder case is playing out in Detroit.

Six years after four people were gunned down in a drug dealer’s home on the city’s east side, one mother maintains her son is innocent and in prison for a professional hit man’s crimes.

The hit man agrees.

Now, after five years in prison, Davontae Sanford may get another shot at justice.

The night of the murders

On a September night in 2007, four people were shot and killed in a house on Runyon Street.

Two people survived.

Not long after police arrived at the crime scene, they were approached by a 14-year-old boy named Davontae Sanford, a partially-blind, learning disabled kid who had a reputation at school for big talk and spinning stories.

Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford, says she told her son to stay inside that night. She says he was fascinated by the drama unfolding in their neighborhood, with rumors of a shooting and the cops appearing in the middle of night.

According to reports, Davontae Sanford first told police that he knew about “whatever happened on Runyon Street.” Then he told them he thought his friends had probably done it.   

He went willingly to the police station to talk with them further, and he did so again the next night, when they picked him up once more.

His mother, Taminko Sanford, did not go with him.

A family’s mistake?

When asked why she didn’t go with Davontae when police kept him late into the night to talk about a murder case, Taminko Sanford says she asks herself that question every day.

"That's something that I'm living with now. Because I never went down there. And I always be like, why you didn't go? Why you didn't go?"

But she says she believed her son was giving police information he might have picked up in the neighborhood or from his friends.

"I assumed by talking to Davontae [on the phone, when he said] 'Mama, I'm all right, I'm playing on the computer, they [the police] just brought me some Coney Island.' And Sergeant Russell says 'Your son is in good hands.'"

The confession

The second night Devontae spent at the police station, officers questioned him multiple times.

He was there with a parent’s permission, but he was alone, without an attorney present or an adult advocate.

By the end of the night, Davontae had confessed to doing the shooting himself.

That confession was not recorded. The law today requires police in Michigan to record any interrogations relating to a felony case, especially a homicide. That was not the case in 2007.

But the video recorder was running when, around 4 a.m., an officer walked Davontae through his written confession.

The tape is scratchy and the audio’s rough, but it’s possible to make out every word.

“Now, I’m going to read aloud to you,” the officer instructs, “and if you hear anything wrong, you make sure you let me know, OK?”

The statement had Davontae and his friends planning to rob the drug dealer’s home on Runyon Street.

It said first they approached the house, and sprayed it with bullets from the outside.

Then they entered shot people inside, and made a fast getaway.

According to the statement, Devontae and one of his friends escaped on foot.

They threw away their weapons.

And then, the confession takes a turn: after planning, executing, and covering the tracks of his crime, Devontae goes home. He hangs up the clothes he wore during the crime in his closet. He does not wash them.

He continues to wear the same shoes – again, not washing them, either.

At which point, he is then overcome with a guilty conscience. The statement describes him going right back out the door and approaching the police.

In the video, Davontae is asked whether there’s anything else he wants to tell the police.

There’s a pause. And then, a resolute “no.”

The conviction, and a hit man’s arrest  

Davonte Sanford was charged with the murders as an adult.

His mother says she listened when her attorney advised them to take a plea.

"[The lawyer said] 'Cause if you don't take this plea, Davontae will never see sunlight again.’”

Taminko Sanford says she herself convinced Davontae to plead guilty.

“My baby never wanted to take that plea. He kept telling me, ‘Mama no, Mama, no.’ I forced Davontae to take that plea. He got 37 to 90 years. That day, I just laid down and died when my son got sentenced to that time."

About a month later, a hit man named Vincent Smothers was arrested and charged with 8 killings.

It was a high profile case, says Ed White, Detroit legal affairs reporter for the Associated Press.    

"At that time, [Smothers] also took responsibility for these four homicides on Runyon Street," said White.

White has been covering this case for years. He’s interviewed Vincent Smothers in prison.

White says Smothers was able to lead cops to the murder weapon from the Runyon Street crime.

And now, Smothers reportedly wants to help free Devontae Sanford.

"He [told me], ‘Prison is a miserable place. I'm here because I committed these killings,’” says White.

“He can't imagine someone who's innocent serving time in prison."

Now, the wait for the court’s decision

Devontae Sanford is now 20 years old.

His new defense team is asking the Court of Appeals to throw out his guilty plea.

But the Wayne County prosecutor’s office maintains that the right man is locked up for the Runyon Street crime.

After all, Devontae Sanford approached police of his own volition. He confessed, at length, to committing the crime.

Furthermore, he pled guilty to the charges in court.

Now, the appeals court judges could also decide to send the case back to a lower judge.

And Sanford’s defense team says they would like the opportunity to have Vincent Smothers testify in court in Sanford’s defense.

Devontae's mom, Taminko Sanford, says she has been waiting for Devontae to come home for 5 years.

"I'm still hopeful, you know what I'm saying? Because, where I'm at with Devontae's whole case is, I'm not expecting nothing out of a man nor a woman. I'm expecting for God to move."

The court of appeals will make their decision in the coming weeks. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.