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Michigan Appeals Court Allows Hit Man To Testify

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Vincent Smothers (credit: Michigan Department of Corrections)

Vincent Smothers (credit: Michigan Department of Corrections)

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LANSING (WWJ/AP) - A convicted hit man will have the opportunity to testify and possibly clear a young man in a quadruple-killing at a Detroit drug house under a Michigan Court of Appeals decision released Friday.

The court ruled that Vincent Smothers could give evidence in the case of Davontae Sanford, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after the September 2007 shootings of five people in the house on Runyon Street, all but one of whom died. Sanford, who has a learning disability and one eye, was 14-years-old at the time.

“We’re very excited that Davontae will continue to have the opportunity to show he is innocent,” said Jonathan Sacks, deputy director of the State Appellate Defender Office, which is representing Sanford.

As police questioned neighbors, Sanford approached an officer and said he had information. After initially denying involvement, he said he and three other people fired into the house, went inside and stole drugs and money. His account was consistent with evidence investigators found but conflicted with some details, the appeals court opinion said. His attorneys contend Sanford cooperated because he wanted to please the police.

Sanford was charged with first-degree murder but pleaded guilty to four lesser counts during his trial before a judge.

Later, he learned that Smothers had been arrested on numerous murder-for-hire charges and had confessed to the killings in which Sanford had pleaded guilty.

The Wayne County judge rejected Sanford’s effort to withdraw his plea or have Smothers testify.

In their ruling, a three-judge appeals panel made no finding about Sanford’s guilt or innocence, or whether he should be able to rescind the plea. The judges also said the trial court didn’t err by refusing to produce Smothers as a witness. But they said he should be allowed to testify if willing.

The appeals panel also ordered the trial judge to hear testimony from Smothers’ attorney about what he told her regarding the shootings, if he waives his attorney-client privilege, and to consider whether experts should be allowed to testify about false confessions and police interrogation techniques. The defense also should be able to examine files dealing with Smothers’ other killings and present any evidence helpful in this case, the panel said.

“The Court of Appeals decision does not allow the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea, but it does remand the case back for further proceedings,” said Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. “At this time we have 56 days to determine how we want to proceed with this matter.”

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.

TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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