Written by Robbin Miller
Perhaps it is human nature…after a violent crime is committed, the police, prosecutor, judges and We The People seek justice for these heinous acts. Though we go in search of justice for the taking of innocent lives, we must be vigilant in accusing and convicting the true perpetrators of said crimes. We need to be compelled by prudence that those who are accused are afforded their civil rights as provided in the Constitution. In the case of Davontae Sanford, these civil rights were disregarded from the start, snowballing into the incarceration of a 14 year old developmentally challenged boy.
On the evening of September 17, 2007, a few days after 14 year old Davontae Sanford started the ninth grade, neighbors said they heard a succession of 30 gunshots. Four men were killed while watching a football game on TV and a woman was left critically wounded but survived. A seven year old boy was found unharmed sleeping in a bedroom in the back of the house. The woman who survived told police that she heard the voice of one of the killers who sounded like he was in his 30′s. A pastor who lived across the street, a Reverend Jesse, saw two masked figures fleeing the scene and he shot at them. He said that both men were 6′ or over. Davontae on only 5’6″, a fairly distinquishable difference.
During the shootings two blocks away, Davontae, Taminko Sanford (Davontae’s mother), his grandmother, his aunt and her boyfriend, a retired Detroit homicide chief, were at the Sanford home together. An inquisitive Davontae went out to see what the commotion in his neighborhood was about. The police had descended upon his street and they came upon the 14 year old walking near his house. They asked if he saw or heard anything about the nearby murders. He told them that he had heard the shots. They took him to the police station and kept him for 20 hours. They befriended him while he played on their computer, phones etc. Davontae began talking and telling stories. He was shown a video of the crime scene during the interrogation then asked to make a drawing of it. Within weeks, this drawing was used as evidence against him.
Clear Reasons this is a Wrongful Conviction
One shocking aspect of this case is that the real murderer has come forward, supplied pertinent information detailing the crime and confessed to all of the killings, yet has never been charged. It is not everyday that a hit-man confesses to a crime that he is not accused of. He said he would testify that he did not know Davontae in September of 2007 and that he had no family, gang or any other connections to Sanford. He went on to say that he is willing to take any additional years that they may give him if convicted of these crimes.
In April 2008, seven months after Davontae “confessed” to the murders, Vincent Smothers (a.k.a. “Vito” ) was arrested and confessed to close to a dozen homicides including those on Runyon Street, the name by which these murders have come to be known. However, he was not charged, because to do so would call into question Davontae’s conviction. Most of the killings were drug related. The interrogator told Smothers “That’s impossible. We got the guy. A kid confessed.” Homicide investigators learned from Smothers that Ernest Anthony David (a.k.a. “Nemo”) was the second gunman. The hit was contracted by a man named Lano. Neither Lano nor Nemo have been investigated for the same reason that it would call into question Davontae’s conviction.
Not only were these murders carried out in a similar fashion as other of Smother’s jobs, his detail and knowledge are clear indicators of his story’s authenticity. By Smothers account, he and Nemo scouted the location earlier in the day by playing catch with a baseball a few doors down. When they returned, Smothers went through the front door with an Ak-47 and Nemo with a .45 caliber hand gun through the window. Smothers knew where the .45 used by Nemo was stashed and told police where to find it in a relative’s home; another fact missing in Davontae’s confession. Ballistics from the crime scene found no evidence of a Mini-14 that Davontae claims to have used. This weapon was never recovered even though Davontae says that he did not throw it away. Five were shot execution style, four found dead on separate couches. Again, not the details in Davontae’s confession. In Smothers confession he describes a six year old boy who was found in the back bedroom with a female victim (who first described the assailants voice as in their early 30’s). In Davontae’s statement there is no mention of this six year old boy. In his confession, Smothers described in detail the amount of drugs and money taken from 1700 Runyon Street that day. These facts are missing from Davontae’s “confession”. Ballistics evidence at Runyon Street has also been linked a bullet fired with the same gun that Smothers used in a different hit. There is no physical evidence linking Davontae to the scene.
Factors Contributing to Davontae’s Wrongful Conviction
For those who do not understand how someone can confess to something they did not do, Davontae’s situation is a perfect example. It is completely legal for detectives to lie during interrogations, making up stories, claiming the dire consequences of not “cooperating” and promising that if the person just confesses, this will all be over and “we” can all go home. A teenage boy spent 20 hours with the police. His mother was not present because she did not even know he was a suspect. After all, he had waived his rights.
Some facts about Davontae’s “confession”:
- His mother was not informed that he was a suspect. She thought he was helping the police. So, Davontae’s parental authority did not have a chance to be present during his interrogation or to request a lawyer.
- Aside from what Davontae’s mother might have done if she knew he was a suspect, he was interrogated in violation of Michigan Law that requires a parent or attorney to be present for a child under the age of 16.
- Within weeks of his arrest, Sanford recanted his confession. He said that he had made up the entire story and that the police had told him key details about the crime making his statement sound credible. This is a boy who was known to “talk big” and tell stories at school.
- Kim Mc Ginnis, Davontae’s appellate lawyer, states that Sanford’s supposed statements and confessions grew more detailed as police investigated the killings. This is a known development in people’s confessions, which has less to do with detective’s skill at extracting information as it does with their sloppiness in revealing details of the crime and then turning around and saying that only the perpetrator could have known these things. The suspect simply repeats what he/she heard the police say.
- In his original statement to police prepared at 4:00 am Davontae does not even place himself at the scene of the crime. Seventeen hours later at 9:30 pm another statement was prepared in which Davontae claims that he committed the murders with his friends. They were all subsequently cleared.
- This second confession is the video on our site. Click here to view.
Efforts to Exonerate Davontae
After Smother’s confession, Davontae’s attorney filed a motion to withdraw his ill advised guilty plea. Judge Sullivan denied the motion and stated that Smother’s confession is insufficient to warrant granting Davontae’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Vincent Smothers has gone public with his assertion that Davontae is innocent. Smothers said that no one is pressuring him or threatening him to testify. “I am testifying that Sanford is innocent of the four murders on Runyon Street and should be exonerated.” He was interviewed by the Associated Press and stated “He’s not guilty. He didn’t do it.” He also says that he never had a fourteen year old accomplice to carry out his paid hits. “There is no link between me and him. I never knew him.” In May of 2012 Smothers told The New Yorker Magazine “Davontae has been railroaded.” Smothers continues to speak out against this injustice: “I understand what prison life is like, it’s miserable.” “He’s a kid and I hate for him to do the kind of time they are giving him.” Smothers has nothing to gain by confessing to these crimes. Though early on Smothers had taken the 5th and declined to testify on Davontae’s behalf, he has now stated that he is willing to tell the truth without immunity that he did not know Davontae in September of 2007 and that he has no family, gang or any connection to him. In October 2012 he told the New York Post that he does not know why he has not been charged with the Runyon Street murders. He told the prosecutor that he did it and he wants to clear his conscience. Smothers waived his attorney client privilege with Gabi Silver so that she could testify on Davontae’s behalf, but Sullivan denied this, asserting it would be hearsay.
Smothers is being held in Level 4 at the lonia Correctional Facility, while Davontae is held in level five, the maximum security level. Smothers received a sentence of 52 years in prison. Davontae has 37-90 years and is eligible for parole in 2046 when he is 53.
What Davontae is personally experiencing
What has changed is the life of a simple, young teenager. Davontae did not graduate with his high school class. He not only lost his freedom, but he lost some of the most important developmental years of a person’s life. His grandmother, with whom he was living, passed away and Davontae could not attend her funeral.
5 Years Later – Update on Davontae’s current situation
Not much has changed. To this day, neither ”Lano” or “Nemo” have been arrested or even investigated. Vincent Smothers has not been charged for the quadruple murder he and “Nemo” carried out.
He was a fourteen year old developmentally disabled boy whose rights were violated. The judge and prosecutor refuse to acknowledge Vincent Smother’s definitive confession as proof of Davontae’s innocence. The judge also has refused to let Davontae withdraw his guilty plea which was based on a confession police obtained after interrogating him without the presence of his mother or an attorney. It is apparent now that Davontae’s confession does not fit with the physical evidence as Vincent Smothers does. The case is now back to the court of appeals to allow Smother’s to testify. Even some of the families of the victims want Smother’s testimony to be allowed. These families empathize with Davontae. It seems clear that this case has many flaws evolving around the false confession of a mentally challenged boy.
Humanitarian principles are at stake here. We need to right this injustice and set this young man free. In recent months Taminko Sanford has revealed that her son is being threatened and mistreated in jail. She is very worried about his safety. Davontae sits in solitary confinement for 23 hours EVERY day, treatment considered inhumane by the international community. He is allowed one phone call per month. He has to watch his back as his friend was stabbed and had to be put on life support. He believes one of the hardest parts is getting out alive. Davontae himself is an amazing spirit who keeps himself uplifted despite his serious difficulties. He enjoys reading, corresponding, keeping up with his supporters on Facebook when he is able and working toward his GED. He is a warm and religious young man who possesses dreams despite his current circumstances. In the end, we believe a statement from Darcy Delaproser in The Blacklist Pub sums things up: “If we remain silent in the face of this injustice, we are committing a greater crime than the oppressors by not standing up, hold our heads high, and fight for his life. For the life we save today may very well be our sons’ or daughters’ tomorrow. And in the end we are defending not only his rights, but rights of each and every one of us to due process and equality under the law.”