DETROIT (AP) — A judge on Tuesday threw out the murder convictions of a young Detroit man who pleaded guilty to killing four people when he was 14, a remarkable turnaround in a case that has been in doubt for years after a professional hit man stepped forward and took responsibility for the slayings at a drug den.
Judge Brian Sullivan acted at the request of the Wayne County prosecutor's office and lawyers for Davontae Sanford. Prosecutor Kym Worthy had long resisted efforts to revisit the convictions until law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University and other pro bono lawyers got involved in 2015.
Sanford, now 23, will be released Wednesday from a prison in western Michigan. In a separate step, Worthy will ask the judge to drop all charges due to the findings of state police in an investigation that was requested last year by the prosecutor's office.
State police learned that Detroit police drew a diagram of the scene of the 2007 killings — not Sanford as had been previously reported by investigators. The conflict "seriously undermines" his confession and subsequent guilty plea, prosecutors said.
"No one can give Davontae Sanford and his family back the nine years he has spent in jail for a crime he did not commit, but the court's decision corrects a grave injustice," said Heidi Naasko, an attorney for Sanford.
David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan's law school, said Sanford's time in prison reflected a "complete breakdown" in the criminal justice system.
Worthy spokeswoman Maria Miller said there would be no additional comment about the case by prosecutors until Thursday.
Sanford has been locked up for the fatal shootings of four people at a Detroit house. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder at age 15, but he's been trying to undo that plea for years, especially after hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the so-called Runyon Street homicides.
Smothers insists Sanford had no role. Sanford's mother said the teen, who is blind in one eye, could barely read or write in 2007 and confessed to please police.
The agreement presented to the judge makes no mention of Smothers. Instead, it said state police found major problems with who created a diagram of the slaying scene after interviewing a former high-ranking Detroit officer, James Tolbert, who was involved in the original investigation.
Tolbert could not be reached for comment Tuesday. No home phone number was listed for him.
Smothers, meanwhile, is in prison for 52 years after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight other killings. He has said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade but would never take on a kid like Sanford as a sidekick.
In an affidavit filed in court last year, Smothers, 35, described in great detail how he and another man carried out the Runyon Street slayings. He said he scouted the house for weeks, even playing catch one day with a buddy so he could get a feel for the neighborhood.
"I hope to have the opportunity to testify in court to provide details and drawings of the crime scene that could only be known by the person who committed the crime: me," Smothers said in the affidavit.
He told The Associated Press during a prison interview in 2012 that he wanted to help Sanford.
"I understand what prison life is like; it's miserable. To be here and be innocent — I don't know what it's like," Smothers said. "He's a kid, and I hate for him to do the kind of time they're giving him."
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