February 28, 2009
Is teen taking the fall for hit man's killing?
BY SUZETTE HACKNEY and BEN SCHMITT
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
Davontae Sanford, a developmentally disabled 16-year-old, sits in prison after his lawyer says he was coerced to confess to killing four people in a rumored drug house on Detroit's east side. Now, an admission from a confessed hit man could finally win him a new trial.
Vincent Smothers, who had already confessed to killing at least seven people, including the wife of a Detroit police sergeant, also has admitted to being responsible for the September 2007 drug house killings on Runyon, according to police and Sanford's appeals lawyer.
"We're hoping to get his plea withdrawn so he can go to trial in light of this new evidence," said attorney Kim McGinnis. "I think this was a false confession made by an adolescent who is a special-ed student and who reads on a third-grade level."
On Friday, Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan ordered police and prosecutors to give McGinnis any oral or written statements made by Smothers about the Runyon killings within the next two weeks.
On the night of the killings, neighbors said they heard a succession of 30 gunshots coming from the house. Killed were Michael Robinson, 33; D'Angelo McNoriell and Brian Dixon, who were in their early 20s, and Nicole Chapman, 25. Valerie Glover, 30, was critically wounded but survived the attack. A 7-year-old boy was found unharmed.
Police said Sanford, who was 14 at the time of the Sept. 17, 2007, shooting in the 19700 block of Runyon, told them he and his friends plotted to rob a drug house and wound up shooting the occupants once inside.
According to his confession, Sanford said all four suspects had guns, and he used an M14 rifle that he tossed after the shooting. He said the gun did not belong to him.
But McGinnis said forensics evidence shows that an AK47 and .45-caliber pistol were used at the shooting.
"Those are the weapons that Vincent Smothers uses, and the whole crime is his exact MO," McGinnis said.
No weapons were found in the shooting.
Sanford, who lived a few blocks from the shooting, first approached homicide investigators as they canvassed the neighborhood about two hours after the incident, according to court records. Sanford told them he had information about the crime, and officers received permission from Sanford's grandmother to bring him to police headquarters for further questioning, according to court testimony. Sanford did not have an attorney present, said his mother, Taminko Sanford, who calls her son Man
Police questioned Davontae Sanford overnight, brought him back home the following day, only to arrest him about two hours later. Sanford, who is blind in one eye, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a felony. He faced life in prison with no chance of parole.
"If I thought there was a chance my son did this, I would love him, but I would not support him," Taminko Sanford, 34, said Friday, later adding, "The police set him up."
After a two-day bench trial in March, Sanford accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony firearm. In April, he was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison. Taminko Sanford said she was advised by their attorney Robert Slameka that there was too much evidence with the boy's confession to continue the trial.
Davontae Sanford is in prison at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer.
"When we signed off on the plea agreement, the lawyer I had said to take this or my son would go to jail for life."
Detroit Police homicide Sgt. Michael Russell, who investigated the Runyon Street killings, said he is certain Sanford was involved in the slayings. He said Sanford gave details, including a drawing of where the victims' bodies were found.
At the time, police found a marijuana-growing operation in the basement and marijuana plants in the backyard.
"Sanford was charged, the investigation was completed and he took a plea -- everything was on the up-and-up," Russell said Friday. "If Smothers wants to jump in and start making claims that he was involved with the case, it's up to the Prosecutor's Office to add him to the warrant. But Sanford was there and he was involved."
When Smothers was arrested in April, he confessed to killing seven people from August 2006 to December 2007. He told police he was paid between $5,000 and $15,000 for the jobs, and began to feel remorse for his actions only after he killed Rose Cobb, the wife of Detroit Police Sgt. David Cobb. David Cobb later killed himself and was never charged.
Smothers is currently charged with six counts of first-degree murder and was scheduled to go to trial on March 9, but that date will likely be pushed back, his lawyer, Gabi Silver, said Friday.
Smothers, 27, told police that David Cobb hired him to kill his wife, orchestrated the killing and paid him through a middleman for his services.
Cobb, 38, was arrested April 20, but the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office declined to charge him, citing a lack of evidence. Cobb remained suspended without pay from the Detroit Police Department when he hanged himself in a public park in September.
Law enforcement sources told the Free Press that murder charges against Cobb were looming for a second time when he committed suicide.
During a Jan. 6 preliminary examination in one of Smothers' murder cases, Detroit Police Sgt. Gerald Williams testified that Smothers made statements about the Runyon Street killings.
Williams declined comment Friday.
Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY at 313-222-6614 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
||Truth in Justice