DETROIT (AP) — A prosecutor who urged a judge to throw out a young man's guilty pleas to four killings defended how the case was handled on Thursday, saying she swiftly sought his release when doubts were raised by state police and wasn't swayed by a hit man's confession to the same slayings.
Kym Worthy was defensive at times during a tense news conference, a day after Davontae Sanford, 23, walked out of prison after eight years. A hit man, Vincent Smothers, has long insisted that he killed the four victims in 2007, first telling police just a few weeks after Sanford went to prison at age 15.
But Worthy said the decision to erase the convictions was related to how Detroit police handled a sketch of the murder scene and conflicts with past testimony that only surfaced during a new investigation. She said the case was spoiled when state police found that the sketch, a "major building block" of evidence, was actually drawn by an officer, not Sanford.
"This case was never about Smothers to us," Worthy said. "This case was about whether the evidence we had against Mr. Sanford was evidence to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. This wasn't the Wayne County prosecutor's office running rogue and trying to do something illegal to Mr. Sanford."
Sanford's legal team declined to comment on her remarks. But many in the legal field believe she easily could have reopened the case and sought police help as early as 2009, when lawyers learned about Smothers' confession.
"The prosecutor has the ability — and I would even argue the duty — to constantly be double-checking and triple-checking the justness of a result in a case," said Neil Rockind, a defense lawyer and former Detroit-area prosecutor who isn't involved in the case. "The systemic issue is once prosecutors make a decision to bring a case, and particularly after they have obtained a conviction, they protect and defend that conviction with a steel grip."
Sanford was 14 years old, blind in one eye and could barely read or write when he was charged with murder after approaching police at the scene of the shootings in his neighborhood in 2007. The next year, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder during trial and was sentenced to at least 39 years in prison.
His family and his lawyers have said he pleaded guilty because he felt trapped by a poor trial attorney and feared a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Efforts to withdraw the guilty pleas began in 2009, when Sanford's attorneys learned that Smothers had confessed to a series of slayings a year earlier, including the four known as the Runyon Street killings.
Worthy repeatedly emphasized Thursday that Smothers twice refused to testify in court about the Runyon Street deaths. She didn't mention, however, that a judge in 2012 had blocked his testimony, and that her office had declined to offer immunity to try to clear up responsibility for the murders.
In 2015, law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University took another opportunity at getting Sanford cleared, filing a detail-rich affidavit in court from Smothers about what happened on Runyon. Worthy soon asked state police to investigate.
"I don't know what we could have done differently," she said.
Bill Proctor, a former television journalist and founder of Proving Innocence, a group that works to free wrongly convicted people, said Worthy's news conference was "smoke and mirrors." For years, he said, "there was no seeking of true justice."
Meanwhile, Sanford enjoyed his first full day of freedom Thursday, wearing new red sneakers, a matching athletic shirt and a big smile. His first meal at home was chicken, eggrolls and fried rice. His next goal: a driver's license.
"I'm not going to play the blame game," Sanford told reporters at a Detroit church, flanked by his family. "It's over. I'm out."
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