DETROIT (AP) — A young man who pleaded guilty to killing four people when he was 14 was set to walk out of prison a free man Wednesday, eight years after a professional killer told authorities he was responsible for the slayings.
A day earlier, a judge threw out Davontae Sanford’s convictions after prosecutors said they would no longer stand behind the case. Sanford was expected to be released from a prison in Ionia, 130 miles west of Detroit, by mid-afternoon.
He was 14 when he was charged in the killings in his neighborhood in 2007 and pleaded guilty the next year.
Wayne County 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. She planned to discuss the case with reporters Thursday.
“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.
A recent state police investigation found that Detroit police drew a diagram of the murder scene — not Sanford as had been previously reported.
Prosecutors cited the state police findings in asking to have the convictions thrown out. Judge Brian Sullivan signed the order Tuesday.
“I feel blessed,” said Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford, who declined further comment.
She said her son, who is blind in one eye, could barely read or write at the time and confessed to please police.
David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school, said Sanford’s time in prison reflected a “complete breakdown” in the justice system.
Sanford, now 23, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2008, 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 in the slayings.
The agreement presented to the judge makes no mention of Smothers. Instead, it said state police found major problems with the account of who created the diagram after interviewing a former high-ranking Detroit officer, James Tolbert, who was involved in the original investigation.
Tolbert could not be reached for comment Wednesday. No home phone number was listed for him.
Smothers 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, the 35-year-old described in great detail how he and another man carried out the Runyon Street attacks. 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.”