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Davontae Sanford: Innocence without a doubt

Almost a year after being imprisoned for four murders he didn’t commit, Davontae Sanford is making sure others don’t suffer the same fate.

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

In September 2007, Vincent Smothers, a hired hit man, murdered four people inside a home on Detroit’s east side. By the time police showed up, Smothers had already left the scene. And 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, who was in his pajamas when he’d wandered from his mom’s nearby home to check out the commotion, wound up taken by law enforcement to give a witness account.

Sanford was in the wrong place at the wrong time. For 24 hours, the teen was interrogated as a suspect at a Detroit police station – without a lawyer or family present – before being coerced to give a confession of the crime he did not commit. The case later became known as the Runyon Street murders.

Mentally impaired, blind in one eye and a minor, Sanford became a victim of wrongful imprisonment by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. When he was 15, he was sentenced to 39-92 years at a maximum high security adult prison, in accordance with Michigan criminal laws where minors are tried, prosecuted and punished as adults.

“You don’t appreciate your freedom until you no longer have it,” Sanford, who is now free, tells BLAC. “I know what it’s like to go through that.”

For nine years Sanford was an innocent man suffering in prison for the crime of a murderer.

The hurt in the justice system isn’t anything new; according to The National Registry of Exonerations, blacks are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than whites. And if blacks are lucky to be released, they still have to spend an average three years more in prison that whites. Those stats are just with murder cases; the rates of wrongful convictions in drug cases are 12 times higher for blacks. Data for sexual assault show blacks that are in prison are 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than whites.

“I get people asking me all the time if I hate law enforcement,” Sanford says. “But I don’t. It was actually law enforcement that opened my case and got me out of prison.”

Two weeks after Sanford’s sentencing, the hit man responsible for the quadruple homicide was arrested when he was told that someone was imprisoned for the murders that he committed.

Smothers told police officers that they had the wrong guy and confessed to the murders, voluntarily giving a detailed account that correlated with the evidence of the crime – particularly the murder weapon that was a perfect ballistics match of the shell casings.

But Smothers’ confession was dismissed. In fact, Smothers was told that he would be given a plea bargain if he didn’t confess to the Runyon Street murders during his trial. The hit man refused the deal and later says in his affidavit that “it seemed ludicrous to me that the state would actually go this far to make sure Davontae Sanford remained in prison for crimes I committed and confessed to.”

In 2015, Michigan State Police reopened the murder case and began to properly investigate after justice organizations filed a motion for Sanford’s innocence. In June 2016, Sanford became a free man, returning home at the age of 23.

He not only came back to his community as an adult, but he came back with the experience that could make a difference in the lives around him. So he created Innocent Dreams, a mentorship program for at-risk youth to help them step away from the life of crime and connect them with high-impact programs.

“I keep hearing people say, ‘Detroit’s coming back,’ and yeah, the streets are cleaner,” Sanford says. “But Detroit won’t ever come back until you invest in our youth, in our schools. They want to close down schools where there are kids in gangs, and do you think that these kids will still go to school after they’re shut down?”

The goal of his organization is to prevent kids from going through what Sanford did with the use of three tactics: prevention, intervention and skill development. Sanford hopes that more kids will realize their potential and use their talents to contribute to safer, productive communities.

Sanford, now 24, has a clean record, which means he is able to become a cop or prosecutor himself if he wanted to contribute his experience in the justice system.

“I thought about doing that actually,” Sanford says. “But Innocent Dreams is what I’m going to stay in.”

Sanford says that cops and prosecutors should have better training and notes that he didn’t receive any compensation for the time he served, much less an apology from the prosecutor’s office. He laughed when he spoke about Worthy, the prosecutor who neglected his case after Smothers came forward with a confession.

“That woman hates me,” he says. “When it comes to which type of prosecutor you could pick, you would pick a black woman over a white guy, but then you see what she does to her own kind.”

However, Sanford’s case is one that beat the odds. He was one of 166 exonerated cases nationwide the year he was released, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. But while the rate of exonerations has only been rapidly increasing, some cases where convicts could be innocent are never reopened.

Besides speaking in schools and communities, Sanford says he also cautions kids that law enforcement is turning to social media for evidence, especially when it comes to users parading guns. He says that he recalls a time he advised a young man to take down Facebook pictures of himself holding guns.

“After I talked to him, this young man took down all those pictures,” Sanford says. “But it’s because these kids put up pictures of themselves on Facebook or Snapchat holding a gun to maybe scare off an enemy, and then that enemy will turn around and do the same thing. They know that they wouldn’t shoot anyone, but after a while the paranoia grows so much that when they do see each other, they might actually do something.”

Sanford plans to grow Innocent Dreams with each child that turns into a productive, stable adult. He hopes that his story will send a powerful message across the country and especially to the community that he calls home.

“As long as I’m able to impact someone’s life in a positive way, then that’s all that matters,” Sanford says. “Your dreams are only worth what you put in them.”

IMAN SALEH IS A BLAC DETROIT INTERN.

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