By Ed White | AP
DETROIT (AP) — An imprisoned hit man has signed a chilling affidavit taking responsibility for four murders at a Detroit drug house in a renewed effort to free a young man who pleaded guilty to the same killings at age 15, attorneys said Wednesday.
Davontae Sanford was just 14, illiterate and blind in one eye when he walked up to police at the murder scene in 2007 and immediately became a suspect. He eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sent to prison, but a new legal team from two law schools wants the conviction thrown out.
The affidavit from Vincent “Vito” Smothers, who has long expressed a willingness to help Sanford, goes into extraordinary detail about the Runyon Street murders, noting the victims were watching a football game on television when he fired an AK-47. He said he scouted the house for weeks, even playing catch one day with a buddy so he could get a feel for the neighborhood.
Smothers expressed deep frustration that prosecutors refuse to acknowledge that the wrong man is behind bars.
“I have nothing to gain from testifying about my commission of the Runyon murders,” said Smothers, who is serving 52 years in prison for killing eight other people, including the wife of a Detroit police officer.
“I only want to tell the truth in order to prevent an innocent kid from serving time for crimes that I committed,” he wrote in the in 26-page affidavit. “I hope to have the opportunity to testify in court to provide details and drawings of the crime scene that could only be known by the person who committed the crime: me.”
Smothers, 34, said he confessed to the four killings — and many others — during recorded interviews when police captured him in 2008.
His affidavit was filed in Wayne County court on Wednesday by students and professors from the University of Michigan law school’s Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University law school. They requested hearings on the new evidence and asked that a judge ultimately dismiss Sanford’s guilty plea.
“We are bringing light to the truth that this system has so long sought to suppress,” said attorney Megan Crane of Northwestern. “All that remains now is for one question to be answered: Can the system handle the truth?”
The process could take years.
Smothers first said he wanted to help Sanford during a prison interview with The Associated Press in 2012, but a judge refused to allow him to testify. The Michigan Supreme Court said in 2014 that Sanford couldn’t withdraw his guilty plea, based on technical procedural reasons. But the high court didn’t foreclose a fresh attempt to reopen the case.
Prosecutor Kym Worthy has refused to back away from Sanford’s conviction, although her office acknowledged in 2011 that some aspects of the case “elude explanation.”
“At the appropriate time we will file a response and argue our legal position in court,” spokeswoman Maria Miller said Wednesday.
Sanford, now 22, isn’t eligible for parole until 2046. His new lawyers said he was poorly served by his trial attorney, Robert Slameka, who didn’t challenge Sanford’s alleged confession or police testimony.
Sanford, as a teen, “was told, ‘Your case was hopeless,'” said David Moran of the University of Michigan. “Well, of course it was hopeless because he had a lawyer who had not put up any fight for him whatsoever. At that point his best option was a plea.”
Reached by the AP, Slameka dismissed the criticism. He has a history of discipline and will lose his law license for six months starting in May because of two misdemeanor convictions.
“This kid would not cooperate with me. When all else fails, blame the lawyer,” Slameka said. “I did everything I could do.”