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STATE OF MICHIGAN

COURT OF CLAIMS

DAVONTAE SANFORD,

Plaintiff
Case No .:
VS.

THE STATE OF MICHIGAN,
Hon.
Defendant.

William H. Goodman, Esq. (Pl4173) Nick Brustin, Esq.
Julie H. Hurwitz, Esq. (P34720) Emma Freudenberger, Esq.
Kathryn Bruner James, Esq. (P71374) Vishal Agraharkar, Esq.
Goodman Hurwitz & James, PC Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP
1394 E Jefferson Ave 99 Hudson Street
Detroit, MI 48207 New York, New York 10013
(313) 567-6170 (212) 965-9081

Attorneys for Plaintiff

COMPLAINT

NOW COMES PlaintiffDAVONTAE SANFORD, by and through his attorneys, the law

finns of Goodman Hurwitz & James, P.C. and Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, and for his

Complaint in this matter, states as follows:

JURISDICTION

1. The Michigan Court of Claims has personal jurisdiction over the Defendant State

pursuant to the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, M.C.L. § 691.1751, et seq. and the

Court of Claims Act, M.C.L. § 600.6419, et seq.

2. Venue is proper in the Court of Claims pursuant to MCL § 600.6419, et s;q. and
MCL §691.1751, et seq. r-...
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3. Plaintiff certifies that the original Complaint is signed and verified by, Plaintiff

before an officer authorized to administer oaths pursuant to M.C.L. § 600.6432(1) ~n_d M.C.L. §

691.1754(2).
NATURE OF THE ACTION

4. This is an action to seek compensation for Plaintiffs wrongful incarceration from

September 18, 2008 to June 8, 2016.

5. Under MCL § 691.1751, Plaintiff is entitled to relief for the time in which he was

wrongfully incarcerated.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

6. At just fourteen years old, Davontae Sanford was wrongly prosecuted for and

convicted of a quadruple homicide of which he was completely innocent and for which he spent

nearly 9 years - from the ages of 14 to 23 - wrongly imprisoned for these crimes.

7. At approximately 11:25 pm on September 17, 2007, a quadruple homicide took

place at 19741 Runyon in the City of Detroit.

8. After arriving at the crime scene, the City of Detroit Police Department (DPD)

Officers learned a number of details relating to the crime from surveying the crime scene and

speaking to witnesses.

9. By some time after midnight, on September 18, 2007, there was substantial noise

and heavy police activity in the neighborhood. As a result, several neighboring residents came

outside to look around, including then-14-year-old Plaintiff Davontae Sanford. Upon leaving his

house in his pajamas, Davontae walked toward the police to inquire about the commotion.

10. DPD Sergeant Russell spoke with Davontae, eventually asking him several

questions about the crimes. Davontae, who had no knowledge about the crimes, could not answer

Sergeant Russell's questions.

11. Davontae was taken into police custody- after the officers misrepresented to his

grandmother that he was neither a suspect nor under arrest- and interrogated for several hours

without an attorney or guardian present, well into the early morning hours of September 18.

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12. Because Davontae was not involved in either the planning or commission of the

Runyon Street murders, he did not know any facts or details about the crime. Nonetheless, over the

several hours they held Davontae in custody, the police officers coerced him to make a statement

about his purported involvement in the crime, at first identifying two alleged "accomplices" who

the officers quickly learned had solid alibis.

13. Nonetheless, the Detroit Police Officers, including then-top-ranking Commander

James Tolbert, inserted several facts into Davontae's "statement"- facts that only they and the

actual killers would know- and later falsely represented to prosecutors orally and in writing that

these facts were "volunteered" by Davontae.

14. Among the many lies perpetrated by the officers in falsely implicating Davontae in

these horrific crimes are included, but not limited to, the following:

a. Falsely attributing certain recited facts to Davontae that actually originated
with the officers;

b. Disregarding that both ofDavontae's alleged "accomplices" had solid alibis;

c. Altering Davontae's alleged "statements" to conform to the evidence that was
being obtained from the crime-scene investigation as it progressed.

15. Most egregiously, Commander James Tolbert drew a sketch of the room in which

the murder victims were killed, showed Davontae photos of the murder victims where they lay in

the room, instructed Davontae to draw the location of the bodies he saw in the photographs onto

the sketch that had actually been drawn by Commander Tolbert, and then Commander Tolbert

falsely testified under oath that the sketch was drawn entirely and voluntarily by Davontae.

16. On September 18, 2007, Davontae was arrested without any probable cause other

than the false and fabricated "statements" and "confessions" referenced above. At the age of 14, he

was placed in custody and would remain incarcerated for the next eight-and-a-half years of his life,

until June 8, 2016.

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17. For much of that time, from the date of his incarceration on September 18, 2007, as

a child, until his release on June 8, 2016, he was falsely imprisoned in adult prison.

18. Davontae continued to assert his innocence until the middle of his criminal trial.

Because the officers, in conjunction with the prosecutors' office, had fabricated such powerful

evidence of Davontae' s alleged "guilt"-not the least of which being the fabricated sworn

testimony of Commander James Tolbert regarding the drawing of the crime scene-Davontae, on

advice of counsel, believed his only recourse was to plead guilty. At age 15, Davontae entered his

guilty plea to four murders and a felony firearm violation-all crimes that he did not commit.

19. On April 4, 2008, the trial court sentenced 15-year-old Davontae to four concurrent

terms of 37 years to 90 years for the murder convictions and an additional two years for a firearms

conviction.

20. After his conviction, Davontae sought repeatedly, from 2008 until his exoneration

in 2016, to withdraw his guilty plea and obtain relief from his conviction based on his actual

innocence of the crime.

21. On April 19, 2008, two weeks after Davontae was sentenced, Vincent Smothers- a

suspect in multiple homicides in the Detroit area-was arrested outside his home in Shelby

Township, and eventually brought to a DPD police station.

22. Smothers, an admitted killer-for-hire who at that point had a wife and newborn

daughter, decided to voluntarily tell the police about the many crimes he had committed to keep

his family safe and out of trouble.

23. Over the next two days, Smothers was interviewed by several DPD police officers

and confessed to having committed several murders-for-hire between 2006 and 2007, including the

Runyon Street murders for which Davontae had just been convicted.

24. Smothers volunteered to police interrogators several non-public facts about the

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crime that only the real perpetrator would have known, and told DPD officers that Davontae was

not involved.

25. Smothers also discussed with Sgt. Russell, separately, his own involvement and

Davontae' s non-involvement in the Runyon Street murders, expressly telling Russell that they had

the wrong guy because he, Smothers, had committed the murders.

26. Sergeant Russell instructed Smothers to cease his statements that either implicated

himself or exonerated Davontae in these murders.

27. Police, meanwhile, corroborated Smothers' confession by obtaining warrants based

on his statements that resulted in the recovery of the pistol that had been used in the Runyon Street

murders, as well as another pistol Smothers had taken from the scene and later used in another

murder for hire.

28. In May 2008, Smothers again confessed to the Runyon Street murders and relayed

one additional non-public detail that only one who was there would have known about, i.e. that he

had exchanged gunfire with another individual while fleeing the crime scene.

29. Smothers was eventually charged with eight murders, that is, every murder to which

he had confessed except for the four committed on Runyon Street to which he had also confessed.

The prosecutor offered a plea deal of 50-100 years for all eight murders if Smothers promised not
to testify on behalf ofDavontae - a deal Mr. Smothers refused.

30. Smothers has also insisted that there was no way that Davontae had been involved

in the Runyon Street killings and that he, Smothers, would never undertake such an act with a 14

year old child, especially one who was, as Davontae is, also blind in one eye.

31. When Smothers pleaded guilty to the other eight murders and was sentenced, on

July 23, 2010, the judge referred to his presentence report, which included his confession to the

Runyon Street murders, and urged him to "correct wrongs for those who were wrongfully

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convicted for killing people that you killed." Smothers replied, "If that's a question [sic] the Police

Department knows of any crimes that have been committed." [Exh. 6, Smothers Sentencing Hrg.

Tr. Excerpt, p.ll].

32. Despite Smothers' detailed confession to the four Runyon Street murders, and his

leading police to the location of the firearms which were shown to be connected to the murders,

the officers repeatedly sought to prevent evidence of Smothers' guilt for these murders from

coming to light, deliberately prolonging an innocent young man's wrongful conviction and

torturous imprisonment.

33. Moreover, the officers who participated in perpetrating the false conviction of

Davontae Sanford did not inform Davontae or his counsel of Smothers' exculpatory statements, or

otherwise follow up on Smothers' statements or seek to correct the injustice that they knew-and

now had confirmation-had befallen Davontae.

34. Several months after Davontae's wrongful conviction, in the fall of2008, one ofhis

post-conviction attorneys happened to learn about Vincent Smothers' confession to the Runyon

Street murders from a journalist.

35. In subsequent proceedings, Smothers repeatedly sought to acknowledge his guilt in

the Runyon Street murders, going so far as submitting an Affidavit attesting to Davontae's

innocence and seeking to attest the same in court. [See Exh. 1, Affid. of Vincent Smothers,

3/ 16/ 15, mJ 3, 66, 69, 73].

36. However, Davontae's efforts to prove his innocence repeatedly stymied Wayne

County Prosecutors, who continued to assert Davontae' s guilt and fight his release, relying on the

DPD officers' continued misrepresentations that Davontae had voluntarily confessed and

voluntarily reported non-public information about the crimes that only the police and true

perpetrator could have known. At no time did Commander Tolbert' s perjury regarding the crime

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scene sketch ever come to light, until October 2015.

37. In May 2015, after the filing by Davontae's post-conviction attorneys of a

compelling Motion for Relief from Judgment, pursuant to MCR 6.503, the Michigan State Police

("MSP") initiated its own independent investigation of the Runyon Street homicides.

38. As part of their investigation, on October 2, 2015, MSP officers interviewed DPD

Commander James Tolbert who admitted for the first time that he, not Davontae, had, in fact,

drawn the crime scene sketch at the precinct on September 18, 2007.

39. This sketch was a critical piece of evidence that was used to coerce Davontae's

guilty plea. Commander Tolbert's admission to the MSP officers thus confirmed that when he

previously testified under oath that the sketch had been drawn entirely by Davontae, he had

committed perjury.

40. During their investigation, MSP officers also retrieved the cell phone contents of

Michael Robinson, the deceased target of the Runyon Street hit. The contents contained a picture

of a .40 caliber gun that closely resembled the .40 caliber gun Vincent Smothers confessed to

taking from the Runyon Street crime scene and using to commit a subsequent homicide.

41. The MSP officers submitted the Report of its independent investigation to the

Wayne County Prosecutor's Office on May 20, 2016. [Exh. 2, MSP Report, 5/20116].

42. The MSP Report details the extensive and extremely thorough investigation that

suggests the Runyon Street homicides, for which Davontae was convicted, were committed by

Vincent Smothers and Ernest Davis. It further confirms that Davontae had nothing to do with

committing these crimes and that he was, therefore, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated within

the meaning of MCL § 691.1751. [See Exh. 2, MSP Report, pp. 23-25, 33, 36-37, 43-44, 84-85,

115-116].

43. As a consequence, this Report constitutes a virtual admission by Defendant, the

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State of Michigan, through its principal investigative agency, the Michigan State Police, that the

PlaintiffDavontae Sanford is entitled to recovery pursuant to MCL § 691.1751 et seq.

44. As a direct result of the strong, irrefutable evidence of Davontae' s innocence

presented in the MSP Report [Exh. 2], on June 7, 2016, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, in

conjunction with Davontae' s criminal defense attorneys, submitted a joint stipulation asking the

court to set aside Davontae' s conviction and release him from custody. [Exh. 3, Stipulated Order

Granting Relief from Judgment, pp.2-3].

45. On June 7, 2016, the trial court vacated Davontae's conviction and dismissed the

case. [Exh. 3, Stipulated Order, p.1; Exh. 4, Wayne County Cir. Ct. Register of Actions, p.8].

46. On June 8, 2016, Davontae was released from prison, [Exh. 5, "Davontae Sanford

home after freed from prison," Detroit News, 6/8116], and on July 19, 2016, all criminal charges

against him were dismissed. [Exh. 3, WCCC Register of Actions, p.8].

CLAIM FOR RELIEF
COUNT I
Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act
M.C.L. § 691.1753

4 7. Plaintiff hereby incorporates by reference all of the foregoing Paragraphs 1 through

46 as though fully stated herein.

48. Plaintiff further alleges, pursuant to M.C.L. § 691.1753. as follows:

a. Plaintiff was wrongfully convicted of four second degree homicides under the
laws ofthe State of Michigan, of which he was actually innocent;

b. Plaintiff was sentenced to 37-90 years of prison as a result of his wrongful
homicide convictions;

c. Plaintiff served eight (8) years and 264 days in prison as a result ofhis four (4)
homicide convictions;

d. Plaintiffs convictions were vacated after new evidence was produced that
clearly proved that Plaintiff was not the perpetrator of the crimes and was
neither an accessory nor accomplice to the acts that were the basis of the
homicide charges;

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e. Plaintiff was not serving concurrent time in prison for any crime outside of the
aforementioned vacated homicide convictions.

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff respectfully requests, pursuant to M.C.L. § 691.1753, relief from

Defendant State as follows :

A. $50,000 for each year from the date Plaintiff was imprisoned, September 18, 2007,

until the date of his release from prison, June 8, 2016, pro-rated, ($436,165.36); and

B. Attomey fees as provided for under the law; and

C. Such other and further relief as this Court deems reasonable and necessary in the

interests of justice.

Respectfully Submitted,

GOO\m. HU ~ITZ & JAMES, ~C.

By: .
William H.' Goodman
William H. Goodman (P14173)
Julie H. Hurwitz (P34720)
Kathryn Bruner James (P71374)
13 94 E. Jefferson
Detroit, MI 48207
(313) 567-6170
wgoodman@goodmanhurwitz.com

-and-

NEUFELD SCHECK & BRUSTIN, LLP

Nick Brustin, Esq.
Emma Freudenberger, Esq.
Vishal Agraharkar, Esq.
99 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10013
(212) 965-9081
nick@nsbcivilrights.com

ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFF

9
State of Michigan )

County of Wayne )

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Davontae Sanford
&nfdcd
Subscribed and Sworn to before me
this ~-dl day of July, 2017

~ f~N. .~-:a-ry-Public
.
Macomb County, Michigan
My Commission Expires: 12/29/2020
Acting in Wayne County
DAVONTAE SANFORD v. STATE OF MICHIGAN

MICHIGAN COURT OF CLAIMS

Index of Exhibits

Exh. l Affidavit of Vincent Smothers, 3/16/ 15

Exh.2 Michigan State Police Report, 5/20/ 16

Exh. 3 Stip' d Order Vacating Conviction and Dismissing Case

Exh.4 Wayne County Circuit Court Register of Actions

Exh. 5 "Davontae Sanford home after freed from prison," Detroit News,
6/8/16

Exh.6 Vincent Smothers Sentencing Hearing Transcript, excerpt, 7/23110