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Former officer in Davontae Sanford case won't be charged for perjury

James Tolbert
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Former Detroit police commander James Tolbert should have faced perjury charges for his role in the Davonte Sanford case, say state police and Sanford's lawyers

Former high-ranking Detroit police officer James Tolbert won’t face perjury charges over allegations that he lied about evidence in the Davontae Sanford case.

Sanford was released this summer, after nearly nine years of wrongful imprisonment. He was convicted of a grisly 2007 homicide officials now say he didn’t commit.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced late Tuesday that her office believes there’s insufficient evidence to charge Tolbert with perjury.

But a lawyer for Davontae Sanford says that’s a miscarriage of justice, and one of the State Police detectives who investigated this case, says the prosecutor’s portrayal of the evidence is “disappointing.”

Tolbert told the court that Sanford drew the murder scene

In 2007, Sanford was brought in for questioning by the Detroit Police, who were investigating a quadruple homicide at a home on Runyon Street in Detroit.

Credit C/O Val Newman
After nearly 9 years of wrongful imprisonment, Davontae Sanford is reunited with his mom, Taminko Sanford, this summer

Sanford, who was 14 at the time and was interrogated without a parent or lawyer, says he was coerced by Detroit police into giving a false confession.

One of the Detroit police officers who first interrogated Sanford back in 2007 was then-Detroit Police Commander James Tolbert.

At first, Tolbert said that he became convinced Sanford was involved in the killings, after Sanford drew a sketch of the crime scene for police. That sketch of the house included the layout of the living room where the murders took place, and the spots where the bodies fell.

And Tolbert always maintained – even in his court testimony – that Sanford drew that sketch without police help.

Until last fall.

That's when Tolbert told state police investigators he was the one who actually drew the house, and he only had Sanford “show me where the bodies were” in the drawing.

In fact, state police say, Tolbert drew an almost exact replica of that original sketch for them during their interview, and then tried to walk out of the room with it – before they had to tell Tolbert they needed it for evidence.

“Which indicated to us, obviously, one, that he probably was the person who drew the sketch,” says State Police Detective Sgt. Chris Corriveau. “And two, that he did remember the incident quite clearly…. He then, after questioning, admitted to us that he drew the house, and Davontae Sanford was the one who put the bodies in [the drawing] there.” 

The state police submitted a warrant request for Tolbert for perjury charges in May.

State police say prosecutor isn’t disclosing “all the information” 

But now, prosecutor Kym Worthy says that same state police interview with Tolbert, actually “undermined” her case against him. 

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

“During the course of the interview [with state police,] Tolbert indicated several times that he did not remember specific facts about the Runyon Street homicides investigation," Worthy says. "He repeatedly indicated that his memory of the events were not clear in his mind, due to the passage of time and the large numbers of cases he has worked on since these homicides took place…”

“Within a short period of time after Tolbert made his statement, Det. Sgt. Corriveau said to him, ‘That makes sense to me’ five times, suggesting to Tolbert that his answers are consistent with the other evidence regarding the homicides…. Tolbert was never afford the opportunity to review any reports or his prior testimony.”

But Sgt. Corriveau says the interview stands for itself.

“Obviously, he did remember the incident, because he drew a copy of the sketch, again, that was remarkably similar to the one that he said Davontae Sanford drew…. Either you know what the truth is, or you don’t. I don’t know why I have to provide you with what your statement was before. There’s only one truth. I think that stands for itself.

“We submitted a warrant for his arrest, because based on the information that we had, it appeared that he [Tolbert] perjured himself and falsified some evidence, which obviously, is very concerning, considering that an innocent person was in prison for numerous years.

“I think the only disappointing thing is, [the prosecutor] did not provide the public with all the information on the investigation. They chose some things that, I guess, supported their decision,” Corriveau said Tuesday.

Prosecutor says Sanford is “unavailable” as key witness, but his lawyers disagree

Prosecutor Kym Worthy says a major reason she can’t charge Tolbert with perjury, is because she just doesn’t have enough witnesses.

"The inconsistencies between Tolbert’s testimony under oath, and his statement to MSP investigators would not be sufficient to prove perjury under Michigan law," Worthy says. "To prove the case, it would have to be supported by the testimony of the two other witnesses that were present, Mr. [Davontae] Sanford and Sgt. [Mike] Russell."

Worthy says Russell “has consistently maintained that Sanford drew the sketch.”

But State Police Detective Sgt. Chris Corriveau says, actually, that’s not true either.

“He was interviewed [by us] a second time, and confronted with the information that Commander Tolbert drew the sketch. At which point, he then claimed he didn’t remember who drew the sketch,” Corriveau says.

Meanwhile, Prosecutor Kym Worthy says her key witness, Davontae Sanford, is “the most significant barrier to charging this case,” because “he will not testify regarding any matter related to the Runyon Street homicides and is asserting his Fifth Amendment privilege because the charges against Mr. Sanford have not yet been dismissed.”

In her press release, Worthy includes a letter from Sanford’s lawyer, saying that though the convictions and sentences against Sanford have been vacated and he’s out of prison, they’re still waiting for the charges against Sanford to be formally dismissed from his record, and Sanford can’t talk until then.

But even in that letter, the lawyer tells Worthy that Sanford “certainly expects that the charges will be dismissed by the court prior to any preliminary hearing that might be scheduled for Mr. Tolbert on his perjury charges.”

On Tuesday, Sanford’s lawyer, Val Newman, says Sanford has expressed to the prosecutor numerous times that he’s very willing to testify against Tolbert.

“Davontae is very angry about this, I just got off the phone with him,” Newman said Tuesday. “And he wants every person who was involved in his wrongful incarceration to be held accountable. He spent almost nine years in prison, while James Tolbert and Sgt. Russell went on with their lives.

“We all know a crime was committed,” Newman says. “Tolbert lied under oath … and to blame Davontae, and to blame the state police, is just diverting attention away from the real situation, which is: They’re not willing to charge Tolbert."

The statute of limitations to charge Tolbert with perjury runs out by the end of the day Wednesday, July 13.

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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