IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — Smiling broadly with $60 in his pocket and a stomach full of chili mac, Davontae Sanford walked free Wednesday after spending more than eight years in prison for a quadruple murder he did not commit.
Now 23 years old, Sanford has been behind bars since September of 2007, when he was 14.
Sanford did not want to say anything to the two dozen reporters who waited for him outside Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, but his grin spoke volumes as he walked to his car with his brother and the attorneys who fought for his freedom. He carried an armload of mail he collected during his stay.
They left the parking lot in a car likely headed for a reunion with his mother and other family members in Detroit and a meal more appetizing than the chili mac he had for lunch, according to prison officials.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz described it as a happy ending to a nightmare that began in 2007 when Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
He confessed on the advice of his attorney, who has since had his law license revoked. The attorney convinced the teen that the state had a rock-solid case and he would face life without parole unless he confessed.
Two weeks after Sanford was sent to prison for between 37 and 90 years, hit man Vincent Smothers confessed to the killings, providing details that included where one of the murder weapons was stashed. But former Detroit police administration and Wayne County prosecutors continued to stand by the conviction.
While in prison, the teen tried to commit suicide in 2009.
The State Appellate Defenders Office, the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic and law firm Dykema Gossett — working pro bono — took on Sanford’s case. They brought to light the weaknesses in the case, including the ineffective counsel and the boy’s confessions that were either filled with factual errors or fed to him by investigators.
The conviction was vacated Tuesday by a Wayne County Circuit Court judge after an 11-month Michigan State Police investigation proved conclusively that Sanford had no role in the murders.
It remains to be seen if any punishment will be doled out to those who participated in wrongfully placing Sanford behind bars for the better part of a decade.