BY BEN SCHMITT and SUZETTE HACKNEY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
A seasoned Detroit cop testified today that he has found no link between an imprisoned 17-year-old, serving time for a quadruple murder, and an alleged hit man who lawyers say confessed to the same killings.
The defense lawyer, Kim McGinnis, is trying to convince a Wayne County circuit judge that alleged hit man Vincent Smothers is actually responsible for the 2007 killings on Runyon Street.
Smothers, who has already confessed to killing at least 10 people, including the wife of a Detroit police sergeant, also has admitted to being responsible for the killings on Runyon, according to McGinnis.
McGinnis represents Davontae Sanford, who is in prison for the Sept. 7, 2007 killings of Michael Robinson, 33; D'Angelo McNoriell and Brian Dixon, who were in their early 20s, and Nicole Chapman, 25. Valerie Glover, 30, was critically wounded but survived the attack. A 7-year-old boy was found unharmed.
Sanford, who was 14 at the time of the killings, accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony firearm. In April 2008, he was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison.
This morning, Detroit Police Detective Ira Todd testified during an evidentiary hearing in front of Judge Brian Sullivan. Sanford was in court for the hearing.
Todd said he interrogated Smothers for five hours after his arrest in connection with other slayings on April 19, 2008. He said he again questioned him on May 6, 2008, along with some Kentucky police officers who were investigating a possible connection to killings in their jurisdiction.
“He was very intelligent, professional,” Todd said of Smothers.
He said Smothers admitted responsibility to the Runyon killings during the second meeting.
“He said that he had done four other murders on Runyon Street,” Todd said, adding Smothers told him he had an accomplice named Ernest Davis, nicknamed “Nemo.”
Todd said he never found a link between Smothers and Sanford, as prosecutors have alleged.
Davis has not been charged in the Runyon killings.
Smothers has been in jail since the time of his arrest. He has yet to go to trial on any of the multiple murders he is charged with, including Rose Cobb, the wife of former Detroit Police Sgt. David Cobb. He is not charged in the Runyon case.
Cobb, 38, was arrested April 20, 2008, but the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office declined to charge him, citing a lack of evidence. Cobb remained suspended without pay from the Detroit Police Department when he hanged himself in a public park in
I follow a simple rule when writing a column for Examiner.com- I avoid working up a piece when I’m cheesed off about the subject matter. Yet one of the points to be made here is that there are exceptions to every rule, particularly the notion that a confession to a criminal act is sacrosanct, including Davontae Sanford’s confession to the Runyon Street murders.
Let’s put it this way- if Sanford had claimed to be a witness to the killings I doubt if the police or the prosecution would have put much stock in what he said. He was young and developmentally disabled, enough to cast considerable doubt on the credibility of his testimony. The prosecution would not have wanted to put him on the witness stand because a defense counsel would have riddled him on cross-x.
Yet because Sanford gave a confession it was a different ball game. Confessions have a different stature from eyewitness testimony because they are admissions against legal interest- why would someone confess to a crime, knowing he would face nasty consequences, if the confession isn’t the real deal? Never mind that the ballistics don’t match the weapon Sanford said he used, or other sundry variances between the confession and the forensics. And forget that the confessor was two young to drive, drink, vote or even have consensual sex. Ignore also the teen’s obvious disabilities and apparent desire to please the police. And ignore the fact that Sanford had no attorney or even his mother present, and that he probably could not read the written confession.
False confessions by dysfunctional people are a fact of life. Sanford’s confession is about as probative as those given under torture during the Spanish Inquisition, so what gave it enough legs to land Sanford in prison on a guilty plea? The sorry answer is that it made things easy for the criminal justice system.
If a homicide detective can clear four murder cases in one day, it’s Miller time. And if the prosecutor’s office can use the confession to get a plea deal that puts a teen away until he’s 53, that’s damn near as easy. Like water flowing downhill, the criminal justice system took the line of least resistance, and in no time Davontae Sanford was doing hard time at the Thumb Correctional Facility, this without the benefit of a full and fair trial on the merits.
There is hope for Sanford, though, in the form of a most unlikely trio: a confessed hit man, a relentless defense lawyer, and a retired cop.
Two of the three Sanford protagonists came along shortly after his misbegotten confession. One was a man in his late 20s named Vincent Smothers, the second a seasoned investigator, considered by his peers to be a superior interrogator, Ira Todd.
The pair sat in a room at 1300 Beaubien. Todd wanted to talk murder, and used his skills to identify Smothers’ weaknesses while establishing a rapport with him. Todd opened Smothers up like a sardine can. Smothers was talking murders and many of them, each a paid hit for which he claimed to have made a total of $60,000.
During one session with Todd, Smothers confessed to doing the Runyon Street job, using an accomplice who was not Davontae Sanford. Smothers would later move to have the confessions thrown out, but that was denied. Smothers is in pretrial detention awaiting multiple trials for first degree murder.
Smothers is almost thirty, has been described by Todd as being of above average intelligence, and used weapons like the ones used to execute the Runyon Street four. Stack that up against Sanford’s confession and it’s no contest which is the more believable.
Even so, neither Smothers nor has accomplice has been charged with those four murders. Why not? Because the prosecutor already has someone behind bars for the same killings; to now indict Smothers would be to admit that they put the wrong person away.
Enter Kim McGinnis, a State Appellate Defenders Office (SADO) attorney who is trying to get Sanford’s confession tossed and win him a new trial. Over the past months, McGinnis has put on a number of witnesses that have cast doubt over the teen’s confession and involvement in the crime, and have raised defenses, including an alibi, which could be asserted at a new trial.
McGinnis wanted to call Vincent Smothers but he took the fifth. And why not? He knows that he will eventually be doing life without parole, no one can or will offer him anything, and helping Sanford will just get him four more murder cases to defend. Yet he has said enough already and McGinnis is using that, most recently by calling Ira Todd as a witness.
I won’t summarize Todd’s testimony which has had plenty of media coverage already, but there was a watershed moment during the prosecutor’s cross-x when Joseph Puleo asked Todd to recall a conversation the two men had had about the case. “I don’t want an innocent man locked up in jail,” Todd answered, quoting Puleo.
Well Mr. Puleo, neither do I.
Chaplain: Shooter was taller
BY SUZETTE HACKNEY FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
December 12, 2009
A Detroit police chaplain testified during a court hearing Friday that the person who fired a gun at him moments after a shooting on his street was at least 6 inches taller than a teen who is imprisoned for the 2007 quadruple killings.
The Rev. Jesse King testified that he saw two people wearing long black coats and ski masks seconds after four people were killed Sept. 17, 2007, in a drug house on Runyon on Detroit's east side.
King said the taller of the two men, whom he described as being at least 5 feet 11, used a rifle to fire three rounds into King's house as he watched from his porch. "When I seen them coming up, I knew something wasn't right," said King, 60.
King's testimony came in a hearing as an attorney for Davontae Sanford seeks to overturn a conviction in the slayings and get a new trial.
Police have said Sanford, who was 14 at the time of the shooting in the 19700 block of Runyon, told them he and his friends plotted to rob a drug house and wound up shooting those inside. But Sanford's appellate attorney said investigators in both written reports and in court testimony have acknowledged that Sanford is only 5 feet 5.
"This is just further evidence that Davontae could not have committed these shootings," attorney Kim McGinnis said after Friday's hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court.
In October, a retired Detroit homicide commander provided an alibi for Sanford. William Rice, a 25-year veteran, testified that Sanford was with him at Sanford's aunt's house at the time of the shooting.
Vincent Smothers, suspected of being a hit man, also has confessed to the Runyon Street killings but has not been charged.
According to Sanford's confession, he and three other suspects had guns, and he used an M14 rifle that he tossed after the shooting. Sanford also confessed that he fired the rifle at King after the shooting.
King said he could not describe the shooter other than his outerwear and height.
McGinnis has argued that Sanford, now 17, was likely fed information by homicide investigators and later included those details in his confession. Sanford has a learning disability and was reading at a third-grade level at the time of the incident.
After a two-day bench trial in March 2008, Sanford accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and using a firearm during a felony. He was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison.
Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY: 313-222-6678 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Retired cop offers alibi for teen in quadruple slaying
BY BEN SCHMITT and SUZETTE HACKNEY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
A retired Detroit police homicide commander provided an alibi during a court hearing today for a teen who is imprisoned for a 2007 quadruple killing.
William Rice, a 25-year veteran, testified that Davontae Sanford was with him at a family member's house for dinner when four people were killed on Sept. 17, 2007, in a drug house on Runyon on Detroit's east side.
"He was there with me at the time the alleged crime took place," Rice said today during an appellate hearing for Sanford in front of Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan.
Alleged hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the killings but he has not been charged and police believe he may have acted in connection with Sanford.
The killings occurred around 11:30 p.m., but Rice said he didn't leave the home on Teppert until 11:45 p.m. to drive Sanford back to his home on Beland.
Prosecutors challenged Rice and warned him about perjury.
"Do you know the penalty for committing perjury," Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Joseph Puleo asked.
"I'm familiar with it, yes," Rice answered, undaunted.
Rice described Sanford, now 16, as a "foster or step-nephew" who he has known for more than 10 years. He testified that Sanford stayed in the basement of the home on Teppert for hours playing on the computer while the adults cooked a roast dinner and conversed.
Rice said the adults would have noticed if Sanford left the home through a back door on the first floor.
"No there's no way," Rice said, when asked if Sanford could have slipped out the door.
On the night of the killings, neighbors said they heard a succession of 30 gunshots coming from the house. Killed were Michael Robinson, 33; D'Angelo McNoriell and Brian Dixon, who were in their early 20s, and Nicole Chapman, 25. Valerie Glover, 30, was critically wounded but survived the attack. A 7-year-old boy was found unharmed.
Police said Sanford, who was 14 at the time of the shooting in the 19700 block of Runyon, told them he and his friends plotted to rob a drug house and wound up shooting the occupants once inside.
According to his confession, Sanford said all four suspects had guns, and he used an M14 rifle that he tossed after the shooting. He said the gun did not belong to him.
After a two-day bench trial in March 2008, Sanford accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony firearm. In April, he was sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison. His mother, Taminko Sanford, said she was advised by their attorney Robert Slameka that there was too much evidence with the teen's confession to continue the trial.
Smothers, who police say confessed to killing at least eight people, including the wife of a Detroit police sergeant, also has admitted to being responsible for the September 2007 drug house killings on Runyon.
Smothers is currently charged with eight counts of first-degree murder, but has yet to go to trial on any of them.
Sanford's lawyer, Kimberly McGinnis, called Smothers to testify before Judge Sullivan in July. Smothers asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege and refused to answer questions under oath.
Puleo has previously said there also is evidence - including gunshot residue - that points to Sanford's participation in the 2007 killings inside the Runyon Street home.
Detroit homicide Sgt. Michael Russell testified over the summer that Sanford gave investigators a description of the clothes he was wearing the night of the killings. The black jeans and PayDay candy bar T-shirt he said he wore tested positive for gunshot residue, Russell said.
But Rice testified that Sanford wore light-colored pajama pants to the house on the night in question.
Not Enough Money Or Time To Defend Detroit's Poor
by Ailsa Chang
The right has been enshrined in the Constitution: Anyone accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer, no matter how poor they are. Public defenders are supposed to represent the people who can't afford lawyers. But they've been so overworked and underpaid for decades, the system is in crisis. And the recession has made the situation worse.
Groups of lawyers and advocates have filed lawsuits in states from New York to Florida to Arizona charging that low-income people can't get a fair trial. Public defenders in Kansas and Minnesota are refusing cases outright.
In Michigan, the system has been broken for decades. Detroit public defenders face abysmal pay, unmanageable caseloads and flimsy oversight.
A Product of the System
A lot of lawyers in Detroit say if you want to see what's wrong with this country's public defender system, just take a look at Bob Slameka: He has gotten into trouble a lot during his 40 years as a public defender, but the county still appoints him to cases.
Records show the state Supreme Court reprimanded him for misconduct involving more than 16 clients. In most of those cases, he filed briefs late and didn't keep his clients adequately informed. And then one of his clients, Eddie Joe Lloyd, made national headlines in 2002. He was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison for rape and murder.
Slameka had taken on Lloyd's appeal. In the two years he handled the case, Slameka never once met with his client or accepted any of his phone calls. The appeal failed. Lloyd didn't get out of prison until a national advocacy group took on the case. Slameka says he couldn't do more for Lloyd because of one important reason: the government didn't pay him enough.
"I don't get paid for his long-distance phone calls from Jackson prison," Slameka says. "My God, they run about how much money and you don't get paid for that stuff. Nothing. I did the best I could given what I had. That's all I could do."
Critics say Slameka is right. He might sound extreme, but Slameka reflects widespread problems across the country. In New York City, because there aren't enough defenders, overworked lawyers say they show up for trials ready to tell the judge they've done nothing on the case. In Miami, they say the only way they can squeeze in jail visits is if they work every weekend. And in Detroit, public defenders haven't seen a raise in more than 30 years. Slameka has to take on 50 clients at a time to earn a living.
One former public defender, Frank Eaman, is now suing the state of Michigan to get more money for the system.
"I know I have friends who work in that court who break their backs trying to defend people to the utmost in doing whatever they can do," Eaman says. "They're constantly expressing their frustration to me of how hard it is to do that."
No Pay For Keeping In Touch
Eaman says one significant problem is the fact that public defenders in Detroit don't get paid for some of the most basic things — like communicating with their clients. They don't get paid for their time making phone calls or for writing letters. And, in most cases, they get paid for only one jail visit. They get $50 for that. As a result, when a client is in jail, one of the few times Bob Slameka ends up talking to him or her is just minutes before court appearances.
Often those conferences take place in the "bullpen." It's a cell next to the judge's chambers where they cart defendants over from the county jail. On a recent day, Slameka meets with one of his clients there.
He calls out to her: "Kelly! How you doing?"
Slameka has silver hair down to his shoulders. He's peering into a small window in a steel door at Kelly. She's been accused of assaulting a woman with a knife.
"We're here today in front of Judge Strong," he tells her, "and they're going to make the same offer like I said downstairs. One to four [years], or go to trial. And that decision is yours."
Kelly asks him if she should plead guilty. He doesn't tell her what to do, but it's very clear he has little interest in taking this case to trial. Critics of the system say a lot of appointed defenders, at this point, will urge their clients to plead guilty because they aren't paid enough to really prepare for trial. A defender in Detroit receives $180 for a basic full-day felony trial. Eaman says that doesn't even come close to covering trial costs.
"The system does not provide the lawyers with the tools they need to defend their clients," Eaman says. "Investigators are very important, expert witnesses are very important. In an appointed case, you need permission of the court. You don't always get permission of the court, or if you do, you get such a small amount of money that you can't find anybody to do the work for you."
Public Defense As A Volume Business
Eaman says defenders also try to avoid trials because they don't have the time for them. They make so little money per case, they have to take on an extremely high caseload just to stay afloat. If a lawyer can avoid trial and plead a client out, he or she can take on more cases.
And that's another problem: Public defense has become a volume business. Some lawyers take on dozens — even hundreds — of cases at a time.
It's difficult to say how much public defenders in Michigan make a year. Each appointed counsel takes on a different mix of public defense and private retainer cases. But everyone agrees the public system doesn't pay enough.
Slameka says he never leans on his clients to plead guilty, but he's not shy about trying to get a case over with.
For example, one of his clients wants to claim self-defense after he was charged with shooting and killing an unarmed man. Slameka thinks they wouldn't have a chance in front of a jury. So, he pulls the prosecutor into the hallway when his client isn't around.
"Lookit, between you and I, we should resolve this case," Slameka tells the prosecutor. "You just can't just shoot people on the street."
"Yeah," says the prosecutor, "when I was reading it, I was thinking the same thing as well."
"And he's trying to claim self-defense," says Slameka, "and I don't think it's viable."
"Not with multiple gunshots at close range like that," the prosecutor says.
"Yeah, about five [gunshots]? Yeah. Doesn't fly. I understand," Slameka says. "But he's of a different mind. But I think if you make some kind of reasonable offer, we can resolve it."
A System With Little Oversight
Critics like Eaman, the former defender who's now suing the state, say public defenders should do everything they possibly can for their clients. The whole system is based on the idea that a lawyer must remain a vigorous advocate.
"Robert Slameka and other lawyers of his type — there are too many of them in the court system," Eaman says. "There are too many that take shortcuts."
He and other legal advocates say it's the system that encourages those shortcuts. Judge Cynthia Stephens of the Michigan Court of Appeals says that's the root of the problem. Stephens presided over trials in Detroit for more than 20 years. More than 90 percent of all criminal defendants in Wayne County can't afford their own lawyers. She says the defenders appointed to those people get away with shoddy work.
"I've seen some appellate briefs that have worried me," Stephens says. "They seem like they came out of a can. I mean, so much so that they're citing a principle of law that probably had to do with the last two cases, but doesn't fit into this one."
Stephens says what worries her most aren't the lawyers getting F grades. Those lawyers are so incompetent, they get caught. She's more worried about the mediocre lawyers — the ones she says get Cs and Ds. And that's another problem with the public defender system: the state will slap lawyers on the wrist, but will allow them to keep representing some of the most vulnerable members of society, like Eddie Joe Lloyd.
Remember, Slameka lost Lloyd's appeal even though it turned out years later he was innocent. Yet the national notoriety of that case didn't hurt Slameka's business one bit.
Lloyd died just two years after his exoneration. His sister, Ruth Harlin, says if someone close to her needed a defense lawyer today, she would do whatever it took to pay for a lawyer.
"I'd mortgage the house," Harlin says. "I would not let a public defender defend anyone in my family ever again. Ever, ever again."
After his appeal had failed and before he was exonerated, Lloyd filed a complaint with the state. He told them Slameka never gave him the time of day. Harlin still has a copy of Slameka's rebuttal, which she read out loud:
"This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated."
When asked if he really thought his own client should be executed, Slameka said yes, that's what he wrote at the time and that's how he felt.
"That's exactly what I wrote. That's exactly how I felt," he said. "You know something? Because of people's actions, a lot of people don't deserve to live. OK? You take people's lives — I'm not saying, an eye for an eye — but because of the nature of your behavior, sometimes maybe you don't deserve to live on this Earth."
When reminded that Lloyd was exonerated and never actually killed anyone, Slameka brushed it off. He said he didn't have DNA evidence at the time, and criminal defense is a very different job now.
Well, except for a few things. Crushing caseloads and skimpy pay have strained public defenders for more than 40 years. And year after year, prosecutors in Detroit get twice the funding defenders do.