Possible False Confession Case Faces Setback in Michigan

A Michigan teenager remains in prison after a judge ruled last week that a confession pointing to another man as the actual perpetrator was not enough to exonerate him. Davontae Sanford, now 19, was charged with murder for the 2007 shooting of four people in a Detroit drug house. During his trial, Sanford struck a deal where he agreed to plea to second-degree murder that carries a sentence of 37-90 years.

His attorney has been trying to overturn the conviction for several years, noting that another man, Vincent Smothers, admitted to police that he was the true gunman and is now willing to testify in court. Appellate attorney Kim McGinnis also argued that Sanford has a low IQ and was trying to please the police after the murders. She pointed out that her client’s confession was never recorded and claims that police fed him details about the crime. Additionally, McGinnis argued that William Rice, a retired Detroit homicide investigator, insisted that he was with Sanford at the time of the shootings.

Although Judge Brian Sullivan noted in his ruling that a gun with ties to the murders was found at the home used by a Smothers ally, he said Vincent Smother’s confession was not enough to exonerate Sanford. Sullivan also said that Rice’s cell phone records make it unlikely that Sanford was actually with him at the time of the crime.

Sanford and his attorney plan to appeal the judge’s decision.

Cases like this show the importance of enacting reforms that seek to minimize the occurrence of false confessions. We have seen numerous instances of children, teenagers and mentally ill individuals confessing or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. A year ago, we shared the story of Douglas Warney, a man with an IQ of 68, who spent nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit after he was coerced into falsely confessing to Rochester (NY) police. In November, we told you about the Illinois judge that overturned the convictions of the Englewood Four, whose rape and murder convictions were largely the result of false confessions they made as teenagers.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University has drafted model legislation that seeks to prevent the wrongful conviction of minors. These reforms include a requirement for all minors to have an attorney present during custodial interrogations and the electronic recording of all interrogations and police questioning involving minors. The CWCY website provides information on more than 100 cases of youth wrongful convictions.