Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Guilty Pleas Scratched, Detroit Man Walks out of Prison

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Guilty Pleas Scratched, Detroit Man Walks out of Prison

Article excerpt

IONIA, Mich. * A man who entered prison as a teenager in 2008 stepped out into sunshine and freedom Wednesday, eight years after a professional hit man told authorities he was responsible for the slayings for which the teen was convicted.

The hit man's first acknowledgement that he was involved came only about two weeks after Davontae Sanford was sent away. But prosecutors repeatedly refused to reopen the case, believing they had already put the killer behind bars.

Sanford, 23, emerged from a prison in Ionia in western Michigan. He declined to speak to reporters and quickly drove off with a brother and two lawyers for the 130-mile trip back to Detroit.

A day earlier, Sanford's guilty pleas were erased by a judge at the request of prosecutors who conceded the case was compromised by flawed police work.

"I feel blessed," said Sanford's mother, Taminko Sanford, who stayed behind to greet her son at home.

Sanford was 14 blind in one eye and barely able to read or write when he was charged with killing four people at a drug den in his neighborhood in 2007. At 15, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the midst of trial and was sentenced to a minimum of 39 years in prison.

The case appeared closed and unremarkable until lawyers discovered the hit man's confession to the same so-called Runyon Street murders, along with eight other killings, just 15 days after Sanford was sent to prison.

That touched off years of efforts to get the guilty pleas set aside, but prosecutors resisted at every turn until state police were asked last year to take a fresh look.

The agreement to throw out the convictions doesn't mention the hit man, Vincent Smothers. Instead, prosecutor Kym Worthy said Detroit police not Sanford had drawn a diagram of the murder scene. She said that "seriously undermines" the entire case.

Worthy refused to take questions from reporters until a news conference Thursday. …

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