The strange case of Davontae Sanford
We haven’t seen her here on the site for the better part of a year, but, for a quite a while, we were getting regular updates from a woman by the name of Taminko Sanford on the fate of her son, Davontae, a prisoner in the Michigan correctional system. Davontae, who was found guilty of murdering four people on Runyon Street in Detroit at the age of 14, as you might recall, was serving a 37 to 90 year sentence. The last time she wrote, if I remember correctly, it was to let us know that Davontae had lost the use of one of his ears, after having his head caught in his cell door. I’d wanted to write about Davontae’s case for quite a while now, but, given how confusing it is (it touches on everything from drug cartels and hit men to police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct), I never felt up to the task. Fortunately, though, Diane Bukowski at Voice of Detroit has taken a shot at it. Following are several clips from her article, which I think should give you some sense as to how complicated this case has become.
Here’s how it begins…
Davontae Sanford is now 18. He has spent the last four years of his short life in adult prisons, convicted of murdering four people on Runyon Street on Detroit’s east side on Sept. 15, 2007, when he was 14. He is 5’6,’’ slightly-built, blind in one eye, and “developmentally disabled.”
Shortly after Davontae was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison in 2008, Vincent Smothers, now 28, of Shelby Township, confessed to the Detroit police on videotape that he and a different man committed the murders as part of a series of drug-related hits. Highly placed members of the police department have testified they believe Davontae is innocent, including a former chief of homicide who says Davontae was with him at the time of the murders….
For some reason, though, the Smothers confession hasn’t been enough to free Davontae. This, of course, may have to do with the fact that Smothers now contends that his confessions were coerced. (Smothers, who claimed to have been a hit man for a drug cartel, is presently serving 50 to 100 years on nine counts of second-degree murder and several counts of assault with the intent to commit murder.) As for coerced statements, here’s a little more from Bukowski’s article:
…(Defense attorney Kim) McGinnis said that during (Davontae’s) questioning by police, neither his mother nor an attorney was present. Davontae signed and initialed a typewritten document drawn up by a detective, despite being blind in one eye, and according to McGinnis, reading at a third-grade level. There is no videotaped record of the confession except one in which the detective reads the confession back to him…
McGinnis said, “Davontae saw the police lights after the killings were discovered around the corner from his house, and walked up to the police to find out what was going on. They told him, ‘You know what’s going on,’ and took him downtown. Twenty hours later, he signed a confession which contained only the details that the police already knew at the time.”
In his confession Davontae claimed he committed the killings with a different weapon than the one used in the killings, McGinnis said. Ballistics evidence, delayed due to the shutdown of the Detroit police crime lab two years ago, is still to be introduced in upcoming evidentiary hearings.
“Smothers gave a confession that was very detailed and clear and implicated another man, Edward Davis,” McGinnis said. “The things he says he did are what the police say Davontae did. The woman in the back room who survived said the killer talked to her in a soft voice that was sounded 30-35 years old, but later changed her testimony to say it was an adolescent voice. In his confession, Smothers admitted to going back to speak to her”…
Now, it would seem, prosecutors are trying to place Davontae at the scene of the crime with Smothers. But, according to Detroit’s retired chief of homicide, Commander William Rice, this couldn’t have been the case, as Devontae was with him at the time of the murder. (Rice was then dating Davontae’s great-aunt, Cheryl Sanford.) Of course, cell tower records, we’re told, put Rice thirty miles away, in Mt. Clemens, at the time of the murder. So, I’m not sure where that leaves us.
And, then there’s the matter of the whistleblower case filed against the Kilpatrick administration by Detroit Police Department officer Ira Todd, who claims to have been demoted over his pursuit of the truth in this case. Here, again, is Bukowski:
…Detroit Police Department investigators Gerald Williams and Ira Todd, who helped take Smothers’ confession, have testified that Smothers admitted to the Runyon Street killings and stated that Davontae was not involved. Todd, who was also a member of the Violent Crimes Task Force, has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Detroit’s former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
His lawsuit, filed by attorney Michael Stefani, says, “During the continuing investigation, it was determined that Smothers was a killer for hire for a notorious Detroit drug gang that regularly contracted for the murders of members of rival drug gangs as well as dissident members of their own organizations.”
In the lawsuit, Todd claims he was removed from the Task force, demoted and otherwise mistreated because his investigation into the Smothers’ killings led him to Smothers’ alleged accomplice, Ernest Davis, and to Davis’ cousin James Davis of Kentucky. Todd said James Davis claimed to have a “business relationship” with Kilpatrick, and that when he reported that, his investigation was shut down and he was transferred…
And then there’s the fact that Smothers was, not too long ago, found to be in possession of a cell phone, which, as you might imagine, is kind of difficult to do in prison without friends on the inside. Davontae’s mother, among others, think that this proves that Smothers is somehow connected to law enforcement officials. As Taminko points out:
…One of the people Smothers confessed to killing was Rose Cobb, wife of Detroit police sergeant David Cobb. Smothers said Cobb hired her to kill his wife outside a CVS pharmacy on E. Jefferson near their home, as she waited in the car while her husband was in the store.
Although the police department arrested Cobb, (Prosecutor Kym) Worthy never charged him in the murder. Cobb was later found hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide…
Oh, and, then, just a couple of weeks ago, Russell Marcilis Sr., the 67-year-old father of Detroit homicide detective LaTonya Brooks, who worked with Ira Todd on the Smothers case, was murdered at his home in a firebombing attack.
So, what do you make of all that?
In a city where something like 8 out of 10 murders go unsolved, I doubt we’ll ever really know.
[If you like, you can join the Free Davontae movement on Facebook.]