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Report suggests Detroit police failures put innocent kid in prison

James Tolbert
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Former Detroit police commander James Tolbert may face charges for perjury

A Michigan State Police investigation into a nine-year-old murder case suggests Detroit police lied about evidence, and failed to follow up on big breaks in the case that might have freed a wrongfully imprisoned young man.

That man, Davontae Sanford, was finally released from prison last week, after serving eight years – largely because of what the Michigan State Police investigation found.

A brutal crime, a young teen, and a professional hit man

Late in the evening of September 17, 2007, at least one shooter burst into the home of Mike Robinson, a reported drug dealer who lived at 19741 Runyon St in Detroit. Four people, including Robinson, were gunned down inside the home.

Hours later, Police brought in 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, who’s blind in one eye, for questioning. Over the next two days, police brought Sanford in for questioning multiple times,  without a parent or an attorney present. Sanford confessed to the killings multiple times, his story changing as police learned more about the crime.

Davontae Sanford with family and supporters after his release.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Sanford speaks to the press after he's released from prison

Two weeks after Sanford pleaded guilty and was sentenced to decades in prison, police arrested a hitman named Vincent Smothers, who confessed to a total of 12 murders-for-hire – including the four on Runyon Street. Smothers says when he learned that Sanford had pleaded guilty to those killings, Smothers told police they had the wrong guy.

Last year, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy asked the Michigan State Police to investigate what really happened that night on Runyon Street. They presented their findings to Worthy’s office in May, and a judge vacated the charges against Davontae Sanford, who was released last week.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Michigan Radio obtained the 100-plus page Michigan State Police report.

It details how former deputy Detroit Police Chief James Tolbert may have lied under oath about a critical piece of evidence used to incriminate Sanford.

And the report also shows Detroit Police officers never investigated whether hitman Vincent Smothers, who was charged and convicted for every murder he confessed to except the four on Runyon Street, was telling the truth about Sanford’s innocence.

Former Police Commander James Tolbert admits he, not Sanford, drew the crime scene sketch

One of the key pieces of evidence prosecutors say convinced them that 14-year-old Sanford gunned down four people in 2007, was a hand-drawn sketch of the crime scene at Runyon Street.

From the location of the couches in the living room, to the entry way, to where the bodies were laid out, Detroit police said Sanford was able to draw the whole scene for them during the interrogation.  And that, they claimed, was information only the killers – or police who investigated the crime – could have known.

Former DPD Commander James Tolbert – who went on to become Flint’s police chief until he was fired earlier this year – testified under oath that Sanford made the drawing himself.

“The only way anyone could have known the positions of the body, they had to be in the house,” Tolbert told the court at a post-conviction hearing for Sanford on July 13, 2010. “I would say whoever made … these drawings obviously had an opportunity to observe the crime scene.”

Judge Brian Sullivan pressed Tolbert about just how much of that crime scene sketch Sanford had actually done.

“So the drawing was done entirely in Mr. Sanford’s hand?” Judge Sullivan asked.

“I believe,” Tolbert said.

Moments later, Sullivan clarifies again: “Look at the exhibit. Is there anything on the exhibit that’s of your writing? Did you draw anything on that exhibit?”

“No,” Tolbert said.

But when the Michigan State Police interviewed Tolbert about this same sketch on October 2, 2015, he told a different story.

According to the MSP report, when investigators asked Tolbert about the sketch, he said he knew what they were talking about, asked for a piece of paper, and proceeded to draw a new sketch that bore a “close resemblance” to the sketch allegedly drawn entirely by Sanford.

From the MSP report:

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

“This differs from what he testified to under oath on July 13, 2010 in front of Judge Brian R. Sullivan.

“Prior to our interview ending with Tolbert he 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. It was then explained that this would be part of our case and put into evidence.”

MSP told prosecutor’s office about Tolbert’s alleged perjury last year

Days after learning that Tolbert had lied on the stand about the crime scene sketch, MSP investigators had a meeting to brief several members of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office about this revelation.

That meeting was on October 6, 2015, according to the MSP report.

But the prosecutor’s office didn’t disclose that information to Sanford’s defense attorneys until May 2016, when the state police completed their investigation and delivered it to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.

Kym Worthy (file photo).
Credit waynecounty.com
Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy

In May, the prosecutor’s office told Sanford’s attorneys only about Tolbert’s alleged perjury – but didn’t give them the full report.  

“The Tolbert trial testimony and his subsequent statement to MSP about the drawing caused us to agree to the dismissal of the case,” said Maria Miller, communications director for the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, in an email yesterday. “So this was exculpatory evidence that was promptly communicated to the defense.”

When asked why they didn’t tell the defense about Tolbert’s revelation earlier, Miller says Friday that because the MSP investigation wasn’t completed until May, the prosecutor’s office didn’t want to interrupt that investigation.

“When we ask an independent agency to investigate … we don’t do anything until the agency is done with their entire investigation,” Miller says.

Sanford’s attorneys declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office says it’s well aware that the statute of limitations to charge Tolbert with perjury runs out on July 13, 2016 and that they’re still reviewing the warrant for perjury charges against Tolbert that accompanies the report.

Michigan Radio made multiple attempts to reach Tolbert, who is no longer an employee of the Flint or Detroit police departments, but we were unsuccessful.

Other Detroit police officers may have known Sanford never made the sketch of the crime scene

The Michigan State Police also interviewed Ira Todd, a former Detroit police officer who had interviewed hit-man Vincent Smothers.

Smothers was arrested just two weeks after Davontae Sanford was sentenced, and confessed to 12 murders he’d committed for hire – including the four on Runyon Street.

Former officer Todd told the MSP that during his interview with Smothers, then-commander Tolbert “interrupted his interview and began to tell him (Todd) what he could and could not ask question [sic] about.”

What’s more, after Todd was assigned to work on Sanford’s case with the prosecutor’s office, Sgt. Michael Russell – who interrogated Sanford without a parent or attorney present, and obtained multiple confessions from Sanford – called Todd about the case.

According to Todd, Sgt. Russell admitted he “asked Todd if he (Sgt. Russell) alright [sic.] Russell then stated he had nothing to do with the sketch, stating it was all Commander Tolbert.”

Todd also told MSP he’s willing to testify about this phone call from Russell, who is still an employee of the Detroit Police Department.

Detroit Police never investigated Smothers’ confession to Runyon St. murders

Vincent Smothers was eventually charged and convicted for every murder he confessed to – except the four on Runyon Street.

Credit MDOC
Vincent Smothers

That’s despite the fact that he was able to lead police to the guns he said he and his alleged accomplice, Ernest “Nemo” Davis, used in the Runyon Street killings.

In fact, police found those guns right where Smothers said they’d be, at Nemo’s cousin’s home.

They also found a gun Smothers said he stole from the house on Runyon Street – the same gun he says he later used to murder a Detroit police officer’s wife, Rose Cobb.

Despite Smothers’ statements to police, his in-depth knowledge of the crime scene, and multiple affidavits  filed by Smothers' attorney about Sanford’s innocence, the Michigan State Police says it doesn’t look like Detroit police ever investigated these claims.

The report says MSP investigators found no “interview or attempt to [to interview] Ernest Davis AKA ’Nemo,’” nor the man Smothers said paid him and Nemo for that hit.

“Futhermore, there does not appear to be any follow up or additional investigation conducted by DPD in relation to the statements made by Vincent Smothers concerning the homicides that occurred at 19741 Runyon,” the state police report says.

According to Smothers, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office even offered him a deal if he’d promise not to testify about Sanford’s innocence. But he says he refused.

In an affidavit, he says it seemed “ludicrous … that the state would actually go this far to make sure Davontae Sanford remained in prison for crimes I committed and confessed to.”

Current Detroit Police Chief James Craig wants to investigate internally, but is waiting for this report

Chief James Craig says he wasn’t even aware that the Michigan State Police was investigating this crime until recently, when he got a call from a reporter asking about it.

Craig says he’s waiting to get the MSP report directly from the state police so he can launch an internal investigation into any active-duty employees who were involved.

“I didn’t know … that MSP was even doing an investigation into an old homicide case, but more importantly, that the investigation turned towards an allegation of impropriety … so that certainly raised my attention,” he said Thursday.

“Because I certainly want to make sure that I’m transparent, being responsible anytime there’s an issue involving any member of the department, either current or past. Now, I’m only responsible for those who still work for the police department.”

Chief Craig says his office is coordinating with the Michigan State Police to at least get the parts of the report that relate to current DPD employees.  

The 2007 homicide predates Chief Craig’s tenure.

Up next: possible charges, civil lawsuit

After eight years behind bars, Sanford was released last week. Arrested at age 14, he’s now 23 years old, and tells reporters he refuses to “play the blame game” and wants to focus on helping others navigate the juvenile justice system.

“I know it’s going to take some time for me to get back used to things, and normalize,” he said. “But the hard part is over, you know? The hardest part was getting me out of prison. So I think I’m ready for it.”

Sources close to his family say they’re considering a civil lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office says it’s still considering two warrant requests resulting from the Michigan State Police report. The first is the warrant request for Tolbert, but the Wayne County Prosecutor's office will only say the second warrant request is related to the Runyon St. homicides.

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