DETROIT (AP) – The Michigan appeals court suggested Tuesday it might order a judge to hear testimony of a Detroit hit man who has said he’s willing to speak publicly and exonerate a young man imprisoned for four killings.
The three-judge panel didn’t make an immediate decision, but comments from the bench during arguments seemed encouraging for Davontae Sanford, who has been trying to untie a guilty plea that will keep him in prison for decades.
“You have to admit this is a bizarre case,” Judge Christopher Murray said.
Sanford, who has a learning disability and one eye, was 14 years old in 2007 when four people were fatally shot at a drug house in his Detroit neighborhood. He walked to the scene and struck up a conversation with police. He eventually made a willing confession, according to investigators, and at age 15 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
But his appellate attorney, Kim McGinnis, said Sanford is innocent and cooperated simply because he wanted to please the police. Her most crucial piece of evidence is a hit man, Vincent Smothers, who is prison for eight other killings and confessed to the Runyon Street homicides that were pinned on Sanford.
Prosecutors never charged Smothers and instead have repeatedly stuck by Sanford’s guilty plea. A Wayne County judge has refused to allow Sanford to withdraw that plea or allow Smothers to be transported to court from prison to testify.
Appeals court Judge David Sawyer suggested Smothers’ testimony would present a more complete picture of the case.
“There is a chance there is an innocent person in jail, in prison. … That’s my major concern here. We’re looking at a very lengthy prison term,” Sawyer said of Sanford.
Murray mostly praised Judge Brian Sullivan’s handling of the case, but he also suggested that Smothers’ testimony might be appropriate.
Assistant prosecutor Thomas Chambers said his office “can’t ignore” the fact that Sanford confessed to the four killings and pleaded guilty. But McGinnis noted that the interrogation was never recorded. She said police turned on the video camera only when they read Sanford’s statement back to him.
McGinnis also emphasized another key point: One of the guns used during the murders was found at the home of a Smothers accomplice.
“It’s a miscarriage of justice,” she said of Sanford’s imprisonment.
Sanford, 20, isn’t eligible for parole until 2046. Smothers, 32, pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder for eight killings. Most victims were involved in the drug trade, although his last target was the wife of a Detroit police officer. He was paid $50 for that hit.
Outside court, Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford, was encouraged by the judges’ remarks.
“I feel good. They’re concerned about Davontae,” she said.
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