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After 9 years of wrongful imprisonment, Sanford sues Detroit

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 is suing the city of Detroit, as well as former Detroit Police Commander James Tolbert and Sgt. Mike Russell, for wrongful imprisonment. 

Sanford spent nearly nine years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At age 14, he was picked up by Detroit police in 2007 after four people were gunned down in a home in his neighborhood. Police interrogated him off and on for 2 days without a parent or attorneys present.

Sanford says police told him if he’d just confess, they’d let him go home to his mom. Former DPD Commander Tolbert later told state police investigators that he’d drawn a picture of the crime scene and had Sanford sign it, though Tolbert later told the court that Sanford drew the picture from memory in order to implicate him in the killings.

Weeks after Sanford was imprisoned, a professional hit man, Vincent Smothers, told police he had committed the 2007 killings, not Sanford. Still, it took years and a long Michigan State Police investigation for Sanford to be released.

"I'm not about to be mad and angry about it,” Sanford said in an interview last year, shortly after his release. “I'm about to try to just live my life. Do I get frustrated about like what's going on and stuff? Of course. But, I just want to live my life."

The Detroit Police say they can't comment on pending litigation. Sanford's attorney, Bill Goodman, says he's not sure how to contact Tolbert or Russell, though they still need to be served. A message left for Tolbert on his Facebook account was not immediately returned. 

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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