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Davontae Sanford: Exonerated, but not yet free

Davontae Sanford was wrongfully convicted of four murders at age 14. He was released from prison in 2016 spending nearly nine years behind bars.
Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Davontae Sanford has been home for a little over a month now.

One month -- after nearly nine years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Now, Sanford says he just wants to build a normal life. But he’s still got legal restrictions on his freedom.

After exoneration, hopes for normalcy

The waiter at this chain restaurant in downtown Detroit just came up to Davontae Sanford and asked, sorry, are you who I think you are?

This is, apparently, happening to Sanford a lot.

“Like this one lady told me that, like, she looked at me as her son. I was like, wow! I never even met this lady before, you know? She was like: hey, hey you! And I didn’t even know she was talking to me and I kept walking. And she was like, ‘I’m talking to YOU!’”

You’ve probably seen Sanford’s case in the news – it’s a crazy story, one a lot of people in this city are fascinated by.

Sanford was arrested at age 14 after a brutal killing near his neighborhood in Detroit.

He was interrogated without a parent or lawyer, and says police coerced him into giving a false confession.

There was even a hit man, who told police: wait, no, you got the wrong guy, I killed those people.

But it still took nearly 9 years for the prosecutor and judge to throw out the case against Sanford.

Now, Sanford says, he’s taking life a day at a time. He gets up, goes to work, school…

Tries to figure out Facebook and smart phones and all normal the things he missed.

“This is normal to me: opening a refrigerator door,” Sanford says. “Getting a job. I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Once I’m at Cedar Point, that’s when I know: everything is done. And that’s normal. Going to Cedar Point is normal.”

The convictions have been vacated – but the murder charges still haven’t been dismissed

But the thing is, Sanford can’t go to Cedar Point (that’s an amusement park in Ohio, by the way.)

Because he still can’t leave the state.

See, the judge in his case, Judge Brian Sullivan, let him out of prison, vacated his convictions….

But still hasn’t officially cleared the murder charges from Sanford’s record.

So he’s STILL on bond. That means no travel, and any violation could send him right back to jail.

Sanford says he’s still on guard – he takes his ID with him every time he leaves the house, and he gets nervous when he sees police.

“Because it’s like, I don’t want to go back to that place I just left,” he says. “And I don’t think I should I have to feel that. I’m out. Just let me go. What are you still holding me for? It’s like you let me out of prison, come home, and instead of living in a prison cell, I’m living in the city still. A bigger room. A bigger room.”

So we’ve been calling the judge’s office a lot the last few weeks. Trying to get any explanation or a comment about why the judge still has Sanford out on bond.

Is the case just taking a long time to wrap up? Is this a paperwork thing?

We keep getting the same response: no comment.

We asked legal experts; they’re not sure what’s going on.

But for Davontae Sanford, it feels pretty simple.

“They say I’m a free man,” he says. “Well, let me be that. Let me be that. Let me be free.”

Sanford says he’s got a very specific plan for when the charges are dropped.

He and his family and friends are gonig to load up a bunch of cars, get on the road, and drive to – you guessed it – Cedar Point.

And when I ask him, why the fixation on this amusement park? Of all the places in the entire world he can now see?

“Well, my age group!  Like, that’s normal. Let’s all get in the car, go on a road trip to Cedar Point. Yeah.” 

That's when the 23-year-old will know: he's finally normal. 

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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