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A Detroit mother’s trust leads to criminal justice nightmare

 by Scotty Reid

A Detroit mother’s trust turned into a nightmare that resulted in her son losing his freedom. The case is so egregious that it is the only thing more egregious than the lack of media coverage about the specifics of the case. When news began to spread that four people were murdered in an alleged crack house on Runyon Street in 2007, then 14-year-old Devontae Sanford was eager to help the police find the killer. It is important to note that Devontae has special needs and his mother, Taminko Sanford, described his mental development to that of an eight or nine year old at the time of his arrest. On the night of the murders, Ms. Sanford told her son not to leave the house when he expressed that he wanted to go down to the scene of the crime. She trusted that he would do as told while she went to the store leaving him with her mother, the boy’s grandmother.

Unfortunately, Devontae did not heed his mother or grandmother when both told him not to leave the house and as a result he ended up being framed and charged with the murders and would be eventually sentenced to 90 years.

Do not trust the police.

By the time Ms. Sanford was able to speak to her son who was taken into custody by police, she found that investigators had coerced Devontae into signing a typed confession to the murders. It is important to note that Devontae could not read or write and therefore could not know what he was signing. The “confession” was filled with errors that did not match physical evidence in the case. In addition to factual errors, Devontae a juvenile at the time did not have a parent or lawyer present during the police interrogation. The Innocence Project says that false confessions come about for a number of reasons but specifically in Devontae’s case, “some false confessions can be explained by the mental state of the confessor”. Devontae Sanford has a documented mental impairment.

The Innocence Project:

•Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable – children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation. Children and adults both are often convinced that that they can “go home” as soon as they admit guilt.

•People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt. 

In order to reduce false confessions, The Innocence Project recommends that police record all interrogations and confessions. Interestingly in 2006, a year before Devontae was interrogated, Detroit Police officials in 2006 agreed to videotape “all interrogations in crimes that could carry a sentence of life” as part of a settlement with the family of a mentally ill man, Eddie Joe Lloyd, who was tricked by police into confessing to a crime he did not commit.

According to a post by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, Devontae’s “initial interrogations were not recorded and the only portion that was recorded contained footage of a police officer going over a transcript of the earlier interrogation”.

It appears the Detroit police violated terms of the settlement to “video tape all interrogations”.

Do not trust lawyers.

Attorney Bob Slameka

Another issue that has relevancy in Devontae’s case is shady lawyers not interested in going to trial to prove their clients innocence but rather are more interested in coercing clients into pleading guilty. Wayne County appointed public defender Bob Slameka to represent Devontae Sanford. What Ms. Sanford did not know at the time was that the Michigan Supreme Court for misconduct involving 16 clients had reprimanded Bob Slameka. Slameka was such a poor attorney that NPR made him the poster boy for their story on the inability of Detroit’s poor to get adequate representation. In the article, Slameka lists lack of compensation from the county as an excuse for his poor and negligible representation of clients. However, Ms. Sanford said that she scrapped up and paid Slameka $10,000 dollars to represent her son.

Slameka told NPR “he never leans on his clients to plead guilty”. Even though physical evidence against Devontae was non-existent, Slameka apparently did not want to go to trial and told the Sanford family that if Devontae did not cop a plea, he would be locked up for a very long time according to Ms. Sanford. Devontae was eventually sentenced to 90 years.

Do not trust the system.

Despite compelling evidence that Devontae Sanford did not murder four people, he continues to languish behind bars. Despite the confession of Vincent Smothers a self-described Detroit hit man to the murders, despite a retired Detroit Police Commander's testimony that Devontae was with him when the murders were committed, despite forensic evidence that links Smothers to the crime, the Wayne County Prosecutors office led by Kim Worthy, continues to argue that Devontae is guilty. The trial judge despite a mountain of evidence that Devontae did not commit these crimes, a new trial for Devontae has yet to be ordered by the court.

Devontae is now represented by Kim McGinnis who appears to be doing all she can to win him a new trial but this a very time consuming process. There are other options to win Devontae’s freedom and one is to have the Governor Rick Snyder to either pardon or commute the sentence. To accomplish this, a petition has been set up on and supporters are asking that people write the influential group Color of Change take up the case and help bring Devontae Sanford home. Devontae’s case and many others serve as a reminder that something is terribly wrong in the law enforcement and criminal justice community and explains why sometimes, the innocent plead guilty to crimes.

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