DETROIT (AP) — Davontae Sanford was just 14 when he told police he killed four people in a drug den, drawing their bodies like stick figures to show where the victims died — on the floor, a couch, a chair.
Sanford was sentenced to at least 38 years in prison for the 2007 slayings, which police say were planned as a robbery.
But now he insists his confession was a lie. A veteran homicide investigator agrees that the young man’s statements were unreliable. And his attorney is seeking help from an unlikely ally: A hit man convicted in no fewer than eight other murders.
“It’s our hope that he will testify for us,” defense attorney Kim McGinnis said of Vincent Smothers, who has told police he took part in the slayings.
For more than a year, a judge has been hearing testimony on the teen’s request to take back his 2008 guilty plea and seek a new trial. Prosecutors stand behind their case against the teenager, but at least two officers who interrogated Smothers say he took responsibility for the same murders.
“He said we had the wrong person, the wrong guy,” Sgt. Gerald Williams testified in May. Authorities have never publicly declared any firm connection between the two.
McGinnis described Smothers as a “careful, methodical hit man” who would never take a one-eyed teen as an accomplice and then allow him to run home after killing four people, as prosecutors now believe may have occurred.
Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford, is urging authorities to “use common sense” in reviewing the evidence against her son, who is blind in his right eye after being struck with an egg when he was 9.
Smothers, she said, “was a hit man, not a baby sitter.”
Smothers admitted being a killer for hire in a string of mostly drug-related slayings. In an April 2008 interview with police, he spoke calmly and remorsefully while being interrogated around the clock by several officers. Eventually the conversation turned to the murders on Runyon Street in which Sanford was already convicted.
“Did you hit somebody in there?” Williams asked.
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“Three guys, and I believe there was a female in the house with them,” Smothers replied. “I’m sure the three guys are dead.”
He said he and an accomplice named “Nemo” stole $2,000 — “I think we split it” — a half-pound of marijuana and a .40-caliber handgun that was used to kill Rose Cobb, a police officer’s wife, three months later.
McGinnis, an appellate lawyer, learned about Smothers’ statements in January 2009, about eight months after her client was sent to prison. She had already failed to get the boy’s guilty plea thrown out based on his recantation, a long shot. But this was completely different because someone else had admitted to being the triggerman.
McGinnis figured the Wayne County prosecutor’s office would back down, and Sanford would be freed.
“I was stunned. They said, ‘Too bad, too sad,’” McGinnis recalled. “The prosecutor has tried desperately to find a connection between Davontae and Smothers but there’s no connection.”
Indeed, the prosecutor’s office insists that Sanford’s guilty plea should stick. Assistant prosecutor Joseph Puleo has conceded that Smothers may have had a role, but, he said, that does not clear the boy. He plans to summon more than a dozen witnesses, mostly from law enforcement, when he starts defending the conviction on July 13.
“They’ve got an emotional commitment to the result they’ve already obtained,” said Gary Wilson, a Detroit-area prosecutor until the early 1990s. “I bought into that attitude. It’s endemic in that part of the profession. It’s the culture.”
In September 2007, Sanford was living two streets away from where the homicides happened. On the night of the four shootings, he walked up to police as they canvassed the neighborhood and was taken to a station for a 4 a.m. interview.
He initially denied any role in the killings. But in a second interview hours later, Sanford told a new story about how he and pals conspired to rob one of the victims, a drug dealer known as “Milk Dud.”
“I was shooting the Mini 14 through the front window,” Sanford said, referring to a gun in a two-page statement typed by police and initialed by the boy.
Near the end of the confession, he said the killings were “getting to me, and my mother told me to tell you the truth.”
Sanford gave the nicknames of four other people who accompanied him that night but they were not charged. There’s no mention of Smothers.
Veteran Detroit homicide investigator Ira Todd was not on that case but recently signed an affidavit calling the confession unreliable. He said Sanford’s statements matched what police already knew, particularly the number of victims and the locations of the bodies.
“There are no recordings, transcripts or video that show Mr. Sanford actually revealing any activity that he undertook during the homicides,” said Todd, an officer for 25 years who has taught interrogation techniques.
So why would Sanford, now 17, take the fall?
“It’s an incredibly difficult question,” McGinnis said. “He was getting a lot of attention for giving a lot of information. I think he didn’t understand the consequences of confessing to murdering people.”
The boy’s mother said talking to police made her son feel important.
“Davontae couldn’t even read that confession. He took a special-ed bus to school,” Taminko Sanford said. “He doesn’t write us from prison because he doesn’t know how to write.”
Smothers, meanwhile, faces at least 52 years in prison when he is sentenced in July for the eight other killings. He accepted a plea deal and avoided a mandatory life sentence but at age 29 probably will die behind bars.
It seems like Smothers would not have much more to lose if he helped Sanford.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” said the hit man’s lawyer, Gabi Silver. “I can’t answer that.”