When convictions are clearly wrong, these prosecutors don’t just hinder justice—they actively work against it.
Davontae Sanford was 14 years old when he confessed to murdering four people in a drug house on Detroit’s East Side. Left alone with detectives in a late-night interrogation, Sanford says he broke down after being told he could go home if he gave them “something.” On the advice of a lawyer whose license was later suspended for misconduct, Sanford pleaded guilty in the middle of his March 2008 trial and received a sentence of 39 to 92 years in prison.
Sixteen days after Sanford was sentenced, a hit man named Vincent Smothers told the police he had carried out 12 contract killings, including the four Sanford had pleaded guilty to committing. Smothers explained that he’d worked with an accomplice, Ernest Davis, and he provided a wealth of corroborating details to back up his account. Smothers told police where they could find one of the weapons used in the murders; the gun was recovered and ballistics matched it to the crime scene. He also told the police he had used a different gun in several of the other murders, which ballistics tests confirmed. Once Smothers’ confession was corroborated, it was clear Sanford was innocent. Smothers made this point explicitly in an 2015 affidavit, emphasizing that Sanford hadn’t been involved in the crimes “in any way.”
But Smothers and Davis were never charged. Neither was Leroy Payne, the man Smothers alleged had paid him to commit the murders. (Through his attorney, Payne has denied any involvement.) Instead, Smothers pleaded guilty to the other eight killings. Davis, who was never prosecuted, was convicted of an unrelated felony in 2013 and could be released from prison as early as July. Payne, who remains a free man, left Detroit in 2016. His whereabouts are unknown.