91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Davontae Sanford voices frustration over lack of charges against former officer

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Davontae Sanford was released from prison this summer after a long court battle to prove his innocence

This has been a hard week for Davontae Sanford.

Sanford, you may remember, spent nearly nine years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

But this week, he learned that one of the police officers who allegedly lied about evidence in his case, will not be charged. 

And for Sanford, this feels like just one more injustice.

The night of the murders: a police interrogation and a crime scene sketch

Here’s how Davontae Sanford says he remembers the night of the murders on Runyon Street in Detroit.

It was 2007. He was just 14 years old.

Police were combing the streets after midnight. They run into Sanford and bring him in.

He was questioned without a parent or a lawyer.

Sanford says police start showing him pictures of the crime scene: pictures of the bodies of four people who had been gunned down earlier that night.

“Those images will live with me for the rest of my life. I will never in a million years forget – like, it was, like stories.”

He says police were telling him just cooperate – then we’ll take you home.

That’s when another police officer comes in, Detroit Police Commander James Tolbert.

And Sanford says Tolbert starts drawing a sketch of the house where the crime took place – the living room where the gunmen burst in, the couches – and Tolbert asks Sanford, "Draw for me where the bodies fell."

“And um once they showed me the pictures, I drew the bodies." Sanford said. "I drew the bodies on the diagram. And once I did that, Tolbert was like, ‘See? I told ya’ll. I told ya’ll.”

Police commander says Sanford drew the crime scene sketch

But that’s now how police say it happened.

Tolbert always said Sanford made drawing of the crime scene entirely on his own – and that his knowledge of the layout of the house and the living room, proved Sanford was the killer.

Tolbert repeatedly swore to that in court: Davontae Sanford made that drawing without help from police.

Then, last year, Tolbert changed his story, in an interview with Michigan State Police:

“It appeared to us that he perjured himself and falsified some evidence, which obviously is very concerning, considering that an innocent person was in prison for numerous years,” said Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Chris Corriveau. 

Corriveau says Tolbert told them that yes, he drew the house, and Davontae Sanford just placed the bodies in that diagram.

And Corriveau says during that interview with state police, Tolbert even sat down and sketched out a drawing of the house that looked exactly like the one he’d always claimed Sanford drew on this own.

“Especially, there’s some knobs on the couch and things like that," Corriveau said. "And he drew a sketch that was remarkably similar to that, which indicated to us obviously, that he did remember the incident quite clearly. He then admitted the fact that he had drawn the house.”

State police request warrant, but prosecutor says no

That contradicts what Tolbert said in court. So the state police requested a warrant to charge Tolbert with perjury.

But now, the Wayne County Prosecutor says she will not charge Tolbert with perjury.

She made that announcement this week. One day before the statute of limitations on Tolbert ran out.

Basically, Worthty says Tolbert told state police his memories of that night were fuzzy.

And fuzzy memories don’t make a perjury case, where you have to prove that someone intentionally lied under oath.

Plus, the prosecutor said, Davontae Sanford wasn’t willing to testify against Tolbert right now. 

“Of course I be willing to testify,” said Sanford.

Sanford says he’s very willing to testify, just as soon as a judge formally dismisses the charges against him. He’s not really free until that happens.  

And he says, Prosecutor Kym Worthy knows he wants to testify.

“And I think she knew that, she was just looking for an easy way out. Because she knew I’d be willing to testify. This man put me in prison for 8 years for a crime I didn’t commit – you think I wouldn’t be willing to testify?” Sandford said.

Sanford is expected to file a civil lawsuit in the coming months. One of the people who may be listed in that suit is former Detroit Police Commander James Tolbert.

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