Report: Prosecutors waited for months before sharing evidence that exonerated Sanford

Jun 20, 2016 at 12:46 pm
click to enlarge Davontae Sanford - Michigan Offender Tracking Information Service
Michigan Offender Tracking Information Service
Davontae Sanford

Wayne County prosecutors waited eight months before telling Davontae Sanford's attorneys about evidence that would lead to his exoneration, according to a newly released report from Michigan State Police.

The analysis, which was released Friday, says that, in October 2015, county prosecutors were informed about alleged perjury that would have resulted in charges dropped against Sanford, a 23-year old Detroiter who spent eight years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of a quadruple homicide when he was 14 years old. Rather than telling Sanford's attorneys about this potentially exculpatory evidence — facts that are considered ethical to disclose as expeditiously as possible — county prosecutors waited eight months, not sharing the news with Sanford's lawyers or dropping the charges until May.

When Sanford, who was released from prison June 8, was convicted of second-degree murder in 2008, a major component of the case against him revolved around the idea that the then-teen had drawn an accurate sketch of the crime scene. This idea was bolstered by testimony by former Detroit police deputy chief James Tolbert, who said that on Sept. 17, 2007 Sanford, then 14 years old, had drawn a sketch of the crime scene. In an October 2015 interview with state investigators, however, Tolbert contradicted this statement when admitted that he, as the former Detroit deputy chief, had actually drawn the sketch. 

This contradiction of the earlier testimony is why Sanford was eventually released from prison this month; however, the gap in when Tolbert made this admission and when Sanford was released raised a series of questions — specifically as to whether Sanford spent extra, even more unnecessary, time behind bars. 

Most notably, the report raises questions about the validity of statements made by the prosecution. 

On June 9, one day after Sanford was released from prison, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy made a statement saying she had only found out about the Tolbert evidence three weeks earlier on May 20. The newly released Michigan State Police report, however, casts doubt on this. 

According to the report, which Michigan Public Radio received through a Freedom of Information Act request, on Oct. 6, 2015, state police detectives convened with assistant prosecutors Rob Moran, Jason Williams, and Tom Chambers, and investigator Cory Williams to, as the report says, "discuss our interview results with Chief Tolbert." 

As the report continues, "They were specifically briefed on Chief Tolbert’s statements regarding the diagram that Sanford had allegedly drawn for DPD." 

While this fact would lead some to believe Worthy would have been informed of Tolbert's contradictory evidence — and therefore the timeline told by Worthy and the Michigan State Police report didn't align — Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller tells MT that this is simply not the case. 

"There is not a conflicting time line," Miller wrote MT in an email this afternoon. "Prosecutor Worthy asked MSP, to investigate the Sanford case, their investigation was not complete in October. Their investigation was completed on May 20, 2016. After reviewing the entire investigation results our office contacted Sanford's attorneys and agreed that the case should be dismissed." 

As the Detroit News points out, the Michigan code of conduct for prosecutors clearly states, "prosecutors have an obligation to make a timely disclosure to the defense of evidence that could exonerate a suspect." In other words winning a case can't trump disclosing important evidence. That said, many of the attorneys the News interviewed (read their quotes here) had varied opinions as to whether the country prosecutor failed to report in a timely fashion, especially considering, as Miller pointed out, the official investigation had not been completed until May.

The timing of Sanford's release — and this new Michigan State Police report — couldn't be more interesting, as the state is re-evaluating its treatment and rehabilitation of exonerated citizens. Earlier this month the Michigan Senate passed legislation that would require the state to pay exonerated prisoners for their time behind bars.

The somewhat costly move — exonerees would be paid $50,000 for each year they were wrongly incarcerated, and then funds to cover any and all attorney fees incurred during the litigation process — is hoped to not only compensate the wrongly convicted, but also put pressure on the state's criminal justice system to reform itself.

Michigan ranks among the highest in the nation when it comes to longer and more punitive sentences — a tendency that can only heighten the level of injustice when the innocent are swept into the criminal justice system. With the state being responsible for compensating the wrongly convicted, there would be more pressure — specifically, financially — to make sure fewer errors are occurring.