World / Crime & Legal

Detroit prosecutor denies trying to railroad innocent youth into four-count murder conviction

AP

A prosecutor who urged a judge to throw out a young man’s guilty pleas to four killings after he spent eight years in prison defended how the case was handled on Thursday, saying her office swiftly sought his release when state police cast doubt on the work of Detroit police.

Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy was defensive at times during a news conference a day after Davontae Sanford walked out of prison. A hit man has long insisted that he killed the four victims in 2007, first coming forward about two weeks after the then-15-year-old Sanford went to prison.

Sanford’s family and his appellate lawyers have said he pleaded guilty because he felt trapped by a poor trial attorney and by the fear of a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted. Sanford is blind in one eye and could barely read or write at the time.

But Worthy said her decision to ask a judge to dismiss the guilty pleas this week was strictly related to the findings of state police, who learned that a diagram of the murder scene was drawn by Detroit police, not Sanford.

She called it a “major building block” that spoiled the case and that the case was never about the hit man, Vincent Smothers.

“This case was about whether the evidence we had against Mr. Sanford was evidence to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt,” Worthy said. “This wasn’t the Wayne County prosecutor’s office running rogue and trying to do something illegal to Mr. Sanford.”

Worthy declined to answer when asked whether Sanford deserved an apology or if the dismissal of the convictions adds up to an exoneration.

“I think I better stay away from that,” she said.

Smothers, the hit man, had pledged for years to testify on Sanford’s behalf to help him win release from prison.

Worthy said Thursday that Smothers twice refused to testify in court. But a judge in 2012 also blocked Smothers’ testimony. Prosecutors also had declined to offer him immunity in exchange for testimony about the killings for which Sanford pleaded guilty.

Smothers, 35, is in prison for 52 years after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight killings. He said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade.

Sanford emerged from a prison in western Michigan on Wednesday. After returning to Detroit, he told reporters that he wanted to try to “put this behind me and move on with my life.”