George Hunter, The Detroit News 11:32 p.m. EDT June 14, 2016
(Photo: Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit and Wayne County officials could find themselves in court as lawyers for Davontae Sanford anticipate filing a federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from his eight-year stint in prison for murders he did not commit.
When asked if there would be legal action, Sanford family attorney Valerie Newman said: “Absolutely.” She added a number of lawyers have contacted the family and are being vetted.
While it can be difficult to win wrongful conviction suits because of police and prosecutor immunity, the alleged missteps in Sanford’s case make it possible a jury could award him millions of dollars, according to a defense attorney who has prevailed in lawsuits for exonerated ex-prisoners.
Julie Hurwitz, who won a lawsuit last year against the city of Detroit for Walter Swift after he spent 26 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, said Sanford appears to have a solid case.
“I haven’t actually reviewed the evidence, but generally if someone is wrongfully convicted under the circumstances that occurred for Mr. Sanford, there are huge constitutional implications,” she said. “The chances his rights were violated in a way that would allow for him to receive financial compensation appear to be quite strong.
“From what I know about the case, it appears there have been glaring violations of Mr. Sanford’s rights from the very beginning. This case raised a lot of eyebrows.”
Police officers who withheld, covered up or lied about evidence could be defendants, as could the city for its policies or practices that condone the officers’ conduct, she said. Prosecutors on the case could also be liable depending on their role in the investigation.
Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell said he can’t comment on pending lawsuits.
Sanford, who was 14 when four people were gunned down inside a Detroit drug house on Runyon in September 2007, told The Detroit News he was tricked into confessing and pleading guilty to the murders.
“I was young; I was just lost in space,” he said. “I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on; it all happened so fast. I got arrested, and seven to eight months later I was in prison.”
‘A justice issue’
Most people who are wrongfully convicted in Michigan aren’t compensated for the years they spent in prison, said state Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, who introduced a bill that would pay $50,000 for every year an innocent person is incarcerated.
“Most cases do not have a successful lawsuit because of police and prosecutor immunity,” Bieda said. “In those cases where there’s no legal avenue for people to go, (innocent people leaving prison) are treated worse than a parolee who actually committed the crime.
“The irony is, there are no services available for them like there are for parolees.”
Bieda, an attorney, said to be successful in federal lawsuits, plaintiffs must prove an intentional violation of civil rights, as opposed to just sloppiness.
Bieda’s bill, which passed unanimously in the state House last week and is awaiting consideration in the Senate, would help those who were wrongfully convicted but are unable to prove intent.
“Nobody’s going to get rich off this, but it gives them a financial footing to try to pick up the pieces of their lives. This isn’t an issue that affects a lot of people; maybe one or two a year. But this is about general human decency.
“It’s a justice issue, and I think anybody who looks at it would say it’s a fair thing to do.”
Hurwitz said juries generally award an average of $1 million for every year someone has wrongfully served in prison.
“On top of that, under civil rights laws, in addition to actual damages a jury could also award punitive damages; and the prevailing plaintiff’s counsel could be awarded separate attorney fees.”
That could mean a jury award of millions of dollars, Hurwitz said. “But you never know with juries. I tried a case of two women who were wrongfully convicted; they only served three months and the jury awarded them $1 million each. So there’s no limit, and there’s no floor.”
Swift was awarded $2.5 million in February 2015. He was freed from prison in 2008 after prosecutors questioned his 1982 conviction.
“But you can’t go by that figure because it came to a head within the context of the Detroit bankruptcy,” Hurwitz said. “That affected the compensation in that case.”
The fact that Sanford was so young when he went to prison could prompt jurors to award him more money, Hurwitz said.
“He literally had his childhood robbed from him, and he likely will be troubled for the rest of his life because of what happened. So, the question is can he ever be made whole? They can factor in what he lost: education, job training, potential employment. All that was ripped out from under him.
“Not to mention the pure trauma of having had to live in prison for the last nine years. I can’t even begin to think what number it would take to fully compensate him.”
After years of fighting efforts to exonerate Sanford, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy last week announced she was dropping charges against him, after the trial judge vacated his sentence. The decision followed an 11-month Michigan State Police investigation launched at Worthy’s request.
State investigators turned their report over to prosecutors last month seeking murder charges for hit man Vincent Smothers, who confessed to the killings for which Sanford was convicted; his alleged accomplice, identified by Detroit News sources as Smothers’ alleged partner in crime Ernest Davis; and another man.
State police also seek perjury charges against former Detroit Police Deputy Chief James Tolbert, who later became Flint’s police chief.
During a July 2010 appeal hearing, Tolbert testified Sanford had drawn a sketch of the crime scene that accurately depicted the layout of the four bodies. But during the state probe last year, Tolbert told investigators he had drawn the sketch.
Worthy said the alleged perjury prompted her to drop the charges against Sanford. She said she’s considering whether to bring charges against Tolbert.
Tolbert’s fate should not affect a federal lawsuit by Sanford, Hurwitz said.
Associated Press contributed.