DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – A young Detroit man who confessed to killing four people when he was 14 can’t withdraw his guilty plea, the Michigan Supreme Court said in a crucial decision that puts efforts to clear him back at the starting gate.

The court didn’t comment on the strength or weakness of Davontae Sanford’s case. It said he couldn’t scratch his guilty plea because there’s no sign that the procedure in Wayne County Circuit Court was faulty.

It’s an extraordinary case. Sanford, now 21, is in prison for the fatal shootings of four people at a Detroit drug den in 2007, but he’s been trying to undo his guilty plea for more than five years.

As police questioned neighbors shortly after the shooting, Sanford approached an officer and said he had information. After initially denying involvement, Sanford 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.

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

A hit man, Vincent Smothers, said he’s responsible for the Runyon Street homicides — not Sanford, who has a learning disability and only one eye.

Smothers admitted his role in 2008 while confessing to a string of other killings. But police and prosecutors took no interest. By that time, Sanford’s case was closed with a conviction and a minimum prison sentence of 39 years.

Smothers, 33, is in prison for eight other killings and has said he’s willing to testify for Sanford. Appeals Court Judge David Sawyer last year said Smothers should be allowed to testify, adding that an innocent young man may be in prison.

In a recent brief order, the Supreme Court said Sanford can’t pull his guilty plea but still can pursue an appeal. His attorney, Jonathan Sacks, said he’ll likely focus on Smothers’ confession as evidence that wasn’t available at Sanford’s trial.

“We look forward to an opportunity for a fresh start and a clean plate in this case,” Sacks said.

The process, however, still could take years.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy refuses to back away from Sanford’s guilty plea at age 15 to second-degree murder. His lawyers say he confessed simply to please police. There is no video of the interrogation.

“The Wayne County prosecutor’s office will continue to oppose relief for Sanford,” spokeswoman Maria Miller said Tuesday.

Sanford isn’t eligible for parole until 2046.

TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 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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