Life After Innocence

Wrongly imprisoned for nearly 10 years, Davontae Sanford works to steer others away from a criminal justice system that failed him

When Davontae Sanford was a teenager in prison, most people didn’t care what he had to say. Now when he speaks, Detroit lawmakers listen.

And through the Innocent Dreams mentorship program and nonprofit he launched last year, he’s hoping other youth in Detroit (and beyond) can steer clear of anything remotely like his experience with the criminal justice system.

Sanford’s story of wrongful conviction has been called “the most compelling [innocence] case you’ll ever see.” It’s also been called “a miscarriage of justice,” and it’s been covered by a slew of national and international media outlets such as NBC, NPR, and the BBC.

At the age of 14, Sanford was wrongly convicted of the murder of four people. After serving nine years, all charges were dropped.

Now he’s speaking out about gang violence and conflict resolution, and sharing his experience with others.

“Who would’ve known nine months ago, that I would be sitting here accepting this award?” the 24-year-old Sanford says to a room full of city officials, attendees, and news media on hand on a March 2017 morning. The “Spirit of Detroit” award is going to Sanford for his recent work with Innocent Dreams.

“When I was sitting in my cell and I was going through hell, I promised myself that once I got out, I was going to put all my power into making it possible so my generation won’t go through what I’ve been through. I know what it’s like to be snatched away from my mother, friends, and family. I don’t want to see kids go through that. I know there’s a better way, and I want to be the one to help guide them through that and find their paths and make something of themselves.”

When he’s finished, the crowd of city officials, meeting attendees, and news media gives him a standing ovation. He takes interviews, and entertains a barrage of well-wishers eager to collaborate with him on Innocent Dreams. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans sidles up: “I’m watching you,” Evans says. “I’m watching you, now.”

Not long ago, Sanford and his family would have been thrilled to receive half this much attention from government officials. Then, an entire team of lawyers and innocence advocates were struggling to get investigators to take another look at his case.

But despite Sanford’s innocence and the overwhelming evidence to support it, it took almost 10 years of fighting — while Sanford endured solitary confinement, abuse from corrections officers, and more — before he could walk out of prison, much less into a city council meeting. His attorneys say it shouldn’t have taken that long, and if it weren’t for the criminal justice system failing on so many levels, it also never would have happened in the first place.

The Runyon Street Murders

As shocking as Sanford’s story of wrongful imprisonment may be, it’s by no means an anomaly. According to Marvin Zalman, a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University, at least 10,000 wrongful convictions occur in the U.S. every year — and that’s a conservative estimate. The criminal justice system is “extremely fragmented” with no single supervising body, and reliable data on wrongful convictions isn’t easy to come by.

But, Zalman says, the causes of wrongful conviction are well known, and although they vary from case to case, they often include unreliable forensic evidence, poor defense, errors in police work, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and false confessions. In Sanford’s case, all of those factors came into play.

“At every single step in the process, the system failed him,” says Valerie Newman, a lawyer with the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit who helped build the case for Sanford’s exoneration.

“His defense attorney, the courts, the prosecutor, the police who continued, basically, to frame him because they had already decided that he was the guy who committed it — that’s how you get a false confession because they believe he’s guilty. It’s a hallmark of many innocence cases that the police, instead of investigating and following the evidence, pick a suspect and then build a case around that suspect.”

But long before Davontae Sanford fell victim to those pitfalls — police misconduct, an incompetent lawyer, a false confession — he was already facing tremendous challenges on Detroit’s east side.

Before he was born, his father spent time in prison. When he was 7, he was rendered permanently blind in his right eye when a friend accidentally hit him in the face with an egg. His mother, Taminko Sanford-Tilmon, was often on drugs (she stopped using when her son was imprisoned and has been clean ever since), and at school, Sanford struggled with learning, emotional, and behavioral disabilities.

Outside the Sanford’s home on Beland Street, life was tumultuous, too.“Beland was a neighborhood where you had to fit in to survive,” Sanford-Tilmon says. “That was one of the red zones for Detroit police.”

“Someone getting shot or robbed — that was normal,” Sanford adds. “Seeing people sell drugs, different gang fights — that was all normal.”

But as familiar as the teenage Sanford was with his surroundings, when he wandered outside his house around 1 a.m. in his pajamas on Sept. 18, 2007, he had no idea what he was getting into.

Hours earlier, two blocks away, four people had been murdered in a house on Runyon Street. The real culprit was Vincent Smothers, a hit man who’d been hired to kill the marijuana dealer who lived there. (Smothers would eventually confess to the killings just over two weeks after Sanford was sentenced.)

Sanford, of course, knew none of this, but stepped outside to see what the commotion was all about. Speaking with Sgt. Mike Russell, a homicide detective investigating the scene, Sanford said that his uncle — his aunt’s boyfriend — was a Detroit police officer. One of Russell’s fellow officers said he knew Sanford’s uncle, who told the police officers at the scene that Sanford was from the neighborhood and may know something about what had happened. Curious to hear more, the officers, along with then-police Cmdr. James Tolbert, took the teenage Sanford for a ride in Tolbert’s cruiser with his grandmother’s consent. They took him to a coney island, picked up some food, and shared a meal back at the station. At police headquarters they collected Sanford’s first statement — without a lawyer or guardian present.

The next day, Sanford was interrogated a second time, and his account of the evening changed. At first, he had said that he and his group of friends had planned to rob the Runyon Street house, but Sanford himself had elected not to go. In his second statement, after more questioning by detectives, Sanford stated that he and his accomplices had all fired weapons into the house, though all of Sanford’s accomplices were known to have solid alibis.

Sanford’s story didn’t match up with key evidence gathered by investigators (like the caliber of bullet Sanford said was used or that Sanford didn’t match the suspect’s physical description), and an initial test also found no evidence of gun residue on Sanford’s hands or face. Nonetheless, the police continued to question him.

As the interview intensified and police repeatedly suggested that he’d be taken home if he cooperated, Sanford simply tried to do as he was asked. Though he didn’t actually know any details in the case, he corroborated pieces of the story police had provided him during interrogation. When detectives presented him with fake evidence — a common interrogation practice — Sanford says he panicked. Detectives told him that they’d found blood on his shoes, and although he told them he didn’t know how that could’ve happened, he put it in his story to appease them.

“They said that to scare me, and it worked,” Sanford says. “I lied and said that it was dogs’ blood, that my dog got into a fight with another dog down the street.”

After two days of interrogation, Sanford initialed a statement prepared by Russell in which he confessed to the four murders. Though he would recant the confession during an interview with a psychologist weeks later — and prosecutors had Smothers’ confession in 2008 — the homicide charges against him wouldn’t officially be dropped until nearly nine years later in July 2016.

Change in Perspective

As victimized as Sanford feels today, he lives by a decidedly optimistic mantra that he often shares with the youth he meets through Innocent Dreams: “It’s not about where you’ve been, it’s about where you’re going.” And these days, Sanford’s going places.

One weekend, he’s attending a conference in San Diego with organizations working to combat wrongful convictions. Another week, he’s teaming up with the Pistons to help kids develop healthy behaviors. He’s teaching high-schoolers about police practices and he’s aiming to explain to young Detroiters that change is more possible than they might think.

“Just because you come from the red zone over on Seven Mile doesn’t mean you gotta be a Blood,” Sanford says. “That doesn’t mean you gotta pick up a gun and sell dope. You can do that if you want to, but you’ve got 40 years waiting for you.”

Sanford’s primary goal with Innocent Dreams is to prevent others from falling victim to the injustices he did and to warn young people about the realities of prison — even if now, surprisingly, he considers his own imprisonment to be a “wake-up call.”

“I kind of feel like my situation was a blessing and a curse,” Sanford says. “It stopped me dead in my tracks. I was unconscious, and I was lost, and I was getting hit from so many different angles with so many different problems. … Me going to prison is what help save my mother and help bring us together. She became a better parent, and I became a better son.”

Sanford’s transition from “lost” teen to “conscious” adult didn’t happen overnight, of course. For years, while in prison, he struggled with violent outbursts that led to visitor restrictions and other forms of punishment. But things began to change when he connected with Newman, who, along with David Moran, an attorney and director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, picked up Sanford’s case, and worked for years to achieve Sanford’s release.

“When I met him, he was very angry,” Newman says. “I drove all the way up to Ionia Correctional Facility, [a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Detroit], and I met with him for maybe 15 minutes, and he wanted nothing to do with me. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.”

But Newman was dedicated to freeing the young man whose innocence she believed in wholeheartedly.

“The more you dug, the more obvious it became that he was innocent,” Newman says. “It was one of those cases that you look at, and you say ‘We’ll go to the prosecutor. How could they possibly not agree to at least look into this?’ But they fought us. They fought tooth and nail every step of the way.”

Newman understood that her first battle was to win Sanford’s trust. She continued to visit Sanford and meet with him by video on a regular basis. She brought in a social worker to work with him on his emotional trauma, and over time, Newman — who Sanford now refers to as his “second mom” — got Sanford to open up and help secure his case for his exoneration.

“I saw tremendous change in him in dealing with his emotions and learning to think about the consequences of his actions,” Newman says. “He’s changed a lot, but since he’s gotten out, I think it’s been a very, very difficult adjustment.”

Having walked out of prison just last June, Sanford is still learning how to navigate life as a young adult in 2017. He hates feeling like the officers who convicted him took advantage of him, and he’s still furious that Cmdr. Tolbert, who Sanford says lied about key evidence in his case, was never charged with perjury.

“He’s got a 401(k), pension plan, everything,” he says. “When I got out of prison after doing nine years for him lying, I got $15.”

Since being released, he’s also still working through the lingering trauma of prison, where he once spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. Several friends he had in prison committed suicide — a fate he once contemplated when he threatened to hang himself.

“I went through so much in prison, it’s ridiculous,” Sanford says. “From being assaulted multiple occasions by prison guards, not being able to eat two, three days, being strapped down to beds for hours at a time. I’ve been through so much.”

Last December, state legislators signed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act. The bill provides wrongful conviction exonerees in Michigan, like Sanford, with $50,000 per year of imprisonment as well as some compensation for attorney fees and other expenses. Newman, for her part, says it’s not enough, and Sanford agrees.

“It’s better than nothing,” Sanford says. “But how could you tell me what my experiences and the things I’ve been through are worth? Since being in prison, my grandma passed away, my little nephew was born. I’m just now learning how to drive. I’m 24 with little to no job experience.”

The Next Chapter

As Sanford continues to confront the day-to-day challenges of re-entry, there’s daily decisions to be made about how to grow Innocent Dreams, how to build a career, and how to move on from life as an inmate. As someone who’s spent more than a third of his life behind bars, the prison world is, in some ways, still the one he knows best. But, Sanford says, there’s at least two factors continuously pushing him toward success: his mother and the players in the criminal justice system who wronged him.

“I know if I was to go and do something, that would hurt that lady,” Sanford says. “And that would have the same people that I’m speaking up against doing backflips, throwing parties, going to the bar, [saying] ‘Drinks on me everybody, we got him!’”

For now, Sanford enjoys speaking to audiences about his bafflingly unjust past. But he also knows the next chapter of his story is the one that matters most.

“People will sit down and listen to my story all day,” Sanford says. “‘Oh, you went to prison. At 14? OK. That’s something. But what’s next, though? What’s the end?’ And that’s what I’m working on. Me. Starting out. The end.”