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Lawyers hope hit man testimony will free man convicted as teen

Kate Wells

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is asking for a new trial for Davontae Sanford, who in 2007 was a developmentally disabled 14-year-old when he confessed to fatally shooting four people in a house on Runyon Street in Detroit.

Shortly after Sanford was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison, a hit man named Vincent Smothers was arrested and confessed to several murders – including the ones for which Sanford was convicted.

Smothers told police they had the wrong guy.

"I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Davontae Sanford was not involved in the September 17, 2007 murders ... in any way," Smothers says in an affidavit submitted by Michigan Innocence Clinic lawyers today. "Davontae Sanford is being wrongly incarcerated for crimes that I know he did not commit." 

But Sanford’s lawyers have laid out how Wayne County prosecutors allegedly sought to suppress Smothers’ testimony, even as the evidence mounted that the professional killer had committed the Runyon Street murders – and not a 14-year-old who was blind in one eye and confessed to police without parents or a lawyer present.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic says Sanford’s confession and eventual guilty plea fit a model for false confessions, in that Sanford was a minor on his own without legal or family support. And he changed his story several times, incorrectly identified which guns had been used in the murders, and included information that later turned out to be incorrect.  

Credit Kate Wells
Attorneys Megan Crane and David Moran are representing Sanford

"He was highly suggestible and very influenced by authority figures," says attorney Megan Crane of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. She's working with the Michigan Innocence Clinic on this case.

"Davontae Sanford actually rejected multiple plea offers, at least two, before he accepted the plea offer he finally took. He rejected those plea offers because he was actually innocent. And he only accepted a guilty plea once he was in the middle of a trial and had come face to face with the fact that his defense attorney was not going to do anything to defend him," says Crane.    

Sanford's original attorney, Robert Slameka, has been admonished more than a dozen times for misconduct and is about to have his license suspended after facing criminal charges for breaking and entering, and theft.

One of Slameka’s previous clients made national headlines in 2002 when he was exonerated after serving 17 years for rape and murder. 

We called Mr. Slameka's office. The phone was answered by a man who said "He died," and then hung up. 

The Wayne County Prosecutor's office released a short statement saying simply: 

"We are aware that a new brief will be filed in the case. At the appropriate time we will  file a response and argue our legal position in court."

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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