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Judge, with reservations, dismisses charges against Davontae Sanford

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

Tuesday was another surreal day in the Davontae Sanford case. 

First came the news that Judge Brian Sullivan was finally dismissing the murder charges against Sanford, more than a month after letting him out of prison.

(Quick explainer: Judge Sullivan already vacated the murder convictions against Sanford, and ordered him released from prison, which he was last month. But ever since, Sanford’s been stuck in limbo, still out on bond and at risk of being thrown back in jail until the charges were dismissed.)

Finally a fully free man

So fundamentally, some very good news for Sanford, who’s been deeply frustrated by the “mixed messages” he felt the court was sending about his innocence, and the anxiety he says he constantly felt every time he stepped out of his family’s home or saw a police officer.

“Because it’s like, I don’t want to go back to that place I just left,” he said last week. “And I don’t think I should 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. [It’s just] a bigger room.”

Now, Sanford’s record should be clear – which will go a long way towards trying to get a full-time job. He’s currently working part-time at a job he got from a supporter of his case, and going to school.

And it means he can finally go to Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio, something he’s been itching to do with his family ever since he got out of prison – but couldn’t, because he wasn’t allowed to leave the state while he was still out on bond.

“Packing in like, four cars, [with] me, my little sisters, my little brother, and everybody going to Cedar Point: that’s when I’ll know … I’m out, I’m free,” Sanford said last week.

Now, that can actually happen, although at least for today, Sanford’s mother says he was going to school, and was declining to comment on the advice of his lawyers.

Judge isn't satisfied with this case, still has “unanswered questions”

Still, the actual dismissal order that came down from Judge Brian Sullivan seemed a grudging one at best, and far from an admission that an apparently innocent person had been locked up for nearly nine years.

“’The function of the criminal court proceedings historically has been a search for truth and justice – an honest endeavor to find out if the accused is guilty or innocent,’” Sullivan wrote in his order, citing a previous case. “That function needs to be fulfilled in this case.

“This case is thick with speculation, conjecture, confusion and unanswered questions; far thinner on evidence,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan blamed part of the long wait for the dismissal order on reading the “114 page MSP [Michigan State Police] report” and some of the transcripts of interviews conducted by state police investigators, who spent nearly a year investigating Sanford’s case.

That investigation, which wrapped up in May, concluded what Sanford’s lawyers have long maintained: that a convicted hit man named Vincent Smothers was the one who gunned down four people at a house on Runyon Street in Detroit in 2007 – not Davontae Sanford.

State police requested a warrant for Smothers, who’s repeatedly confessed to the Runyon Street homicides and always said that Sanford was not involved. The state police also requested warrants for two of Smothers’ accomplices. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office says it will be returning those warrants back to the state police for further investigation.

Meanwhile, Sullivan isn’t satisfied with the Michigan State Police investigation, claiming it “does not appear to answer or resolve the outstanding questions in this case.”

Several of judge's questions already addressed  

But several of the questions Sullivan listed had, in fact, already been addressed. Several surrounded the testimony of a witness to the Runyon Street homicides: Valerie Glover, a woman who was in the home when masked shooters burst into the living room, was shot herself several times, but managed to crawl to a bedroom and hide under a child’s bed.

Glover testified that one of the men came back to the bedroom where she was hiding, and she describes speaking with a “younger person” whose voice was “not deep.”

Smothers, who told police about speaking with a woman hiding under a bed after the shooting, is tall, was in his 26 at the time of the shooting, and doesn’t have a deep voice – as Sanford’s lawyers from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic pointed out in their legal brief filed last year.

Sullivan also points out that an evidence test found gunpowder residue on Sanford’s pants, something he says “was simply ignored.”

But in an affidavit filed for Sanford’s defense team, former Washington DC homicide detective Jim Trainum says the reliability of gunshot residue testing is “highly questionable,” and points out that no residue was found on any of Sanford’s other clothing, nor was there any blood on his clothing. “If Sanford was in a small room where multiple, high power weapons were fired at close range into multiple bodies there should have been blood on his clothing,” Trainum wrote in an affidavit filed for the defense.

Sanford’s lawyers: despite judge's reservations, it’s finally over

Still, Judge Sullivan says more work needs to be done in this case.

“The facts need to be discovered through professional unbiased investigation," he wrote in his opinion. "Nothing short of the truth, if still ascertainable after this vast obfuscation of facts and maneuvering, will satisfy a bewildered populace as to why the crimes are not solved and the investigation only produced more unanswered questions and greater confusion. What has been presented so far, in the manner and form elected, has done little to resolve the issues.”

“We’re very pleased that this is over for Davontae Sanford,” says David Moran of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic.

“Davontae Sanford is innocent – that’s a conclusion the Michigan State Police reached after a very comprehensive, year-long investigation totaling thousands of pages, and that identified other people who actually committed the killings on Runyon Street.

“The questions that are raised in the opinion about the case are all answered in our motion for relief from judgment and/or the Michigan State Police report. And finally, I hope the four people who were killed on Runyon Street in 2007, get justice," Moran said.

Update: “Judge Sullivan is wrong about Smothers' willingness to testify,” says Gabi Silver, an attorney for Vincent Smothers, the convicted hit man who’s always maintained that he – and not Davontae Sanford – killed four people at home on Runyon Street in Detroit in 2007.  

Judge Brian Sullivan claimed yesterday that Smothers twice “refused to testify” when subpoenaed as a witness in Sanford’s case. Sullivan wrote a dismissal order of the charges against Davontae Sanford yesterday - but that dismissal order was filled with misgivings about the case and Sanford's innocence. 

“Initially, Smothers did not want to testify, based on the advice of counsel,” says Silver, the attorney for Vincent Smothers.  “He waived attorney-client privilege and told Sullivan that I could reveal everything he had told me about Runyon street. Sullivan would not allow it.  Smothers then decided to testify himself, rather than let Sanford continue to sit in prison. 

“Smothers told me that prison was the worst place he had ever been, and he was there for crimes he had committed.  He couldn't even imagine being there for crimes he hadn't committed ... like Sanford.  It would be nice if someone got the facts right.... Smothers has been willing to testify for years."

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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