Davontae Sanford's Road to Freedom
Video: Davontae Sanford recalls the night of the murders
June, 2016: Davontae Sanford returns to Runyon Street for a wide-ranging discussion of the events that led him to this point, including a description of the night of the murders, his questioning, and his subsequent arrest. (Run time: 15:16. See below for a transcript)
Transcript of the interview
Davontae Sanford talks about the events of Sept. 17, 2007, and his journey through the criminal justice system:
“I had just got done seeing my little girlfriend, then right after that I went to my Auntie’s Cheryl’s house. I remember the last thing I ate; she cooked roast, potatoes, and carrots. I stayed there for a while then they brought me home…my mother left, came back; she was like ‘something had happened.’ But I wasn’t paying that much attention to it.
“Then … I came out here. I sat right there at the corner, and I seen news vans and police cars had that area blocked off. I start walking up the street … that’s when … (Sgt. Mike Russell) started asking me questions … what’s my name, where do I live, things like that. Have I heard or seen anything. I told them I didn’t know nothing.”
Sanford said he explained to Russell and Officer Dale Collins he had been with his great-aunt Cheryl Sanford’s boyfriend, Bill Rice, former head of the Detroit Police Homicide Section.
“(Collins) said ‘Oh, I know Bill Rice; that’s my man.’ They called him, and he confirmed ‘yeah, he was with me.’ I had told them, look, I don’t know nothing; they put Bill on the phone, he was like ‘if you know something, say something … these guys are my friends; help them out if you do know something.
“I told them I didn’t know nothing; that’s when they said they wanted to question me. They brought me back to my house to get a consent form from my grandmother.
“And they asked me ‘was those the clothes I been wearing all day?’ because I had on some pajama pants, gym shoes and a hoodie.”
According to Sanford, police reports, court testimony and the state police report, the teen got into a police vehicle with Russell and Collins. Tolbert, who was then head of the Major Crimes Division that included homicide and other commands, drove around for about two hours.
“They drove me to the Osborn parking lot. (Tolbert) wanted to know who could’ve done something like this; what guys were doing in the neighborhood, that kind of stuff.”
“I asked them what’s it for? They said, ‘this is something we need to do.’ I left Tolbert and I was in a car with Russell and Collins. We went to Coney Ilsand, got something to eat. We went back to 1300 Beaubien; they let me get on the computer. (They were) friendly. It wasn’t hostile at all.
“My first statement was took. They all left, and I spent the night at 1300 Beaubien, sleeping on the couch. I was woken up by (homicide investigator) Barbara Simon. She had my statement; she was like ‘sign your name here, here, here, here.’ I told her, ‘I can’t read.’ She said ‘just sign your initials.’”
Sanford said he was then taken to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, where he stayed in a room for about a half hour while detectives spoke with prosecutors.
Officers then took Sanford home. Later that day, police returned to his house. “I was asleep on the couch. It was Sgt. Russell and another officer. They told me they needed to talk to me again. They told my mother, ‘we think your son knows something; we think your son’s lying; he needs to tell the truth.’ And I told them repeatedly: “I don’t know nothing. I don’t know nothing.’”
Sanford said Russell told his mom: “We just want to talk to him one more time. I promise you we’re going to bring him home. I promise you we’re going to bring your son back.”
Then, Sanford said, Russell told him: “I promise you I’m going to have you home so you can go to school tomorrow.
“Once we got in the car … that’s when stuff started to change, with the questioning. His main thing was, ‘we found blood on your shoes.’ I started panicking, like ‘What? How could y’all find blood on my shoes? Y’all didn’t find blood on my shoes.’ He’s like, ‘yes, you did. We tested it already.’
“Once we got to 1300 Beaubien, that’s when everything completely changed; the whole environment. (I was) nervous, scared. I didn’t know what was going on. Everything was happening so quick. Sgt. Russell kept telling me, ‘You think this is a game? Look at these people.’ He started showing me pictures of the dead bodies. I’ll never forget that. I never will forget those pictures.
“Tolbert and them kept coming in … we was in an office; they’d come in, talk to me, and leave. They was taking turns asking me questions.
“Tolbert came in with a piece of paper and was like ‘show me where the bodies was at,’” Sanford said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know where the bodies was at.’ That’s when he drew the whole diameter of the house. He was like ‘if you show me where the bodies was at, I’ll make sure you go home.’
“They had already showed me the pictures before (of the bodies), so I’m thinking like, ‘I know from these pictures where they were at, so maybe if I do this, I’ll go home. I just want to go home at this time.
“So I did it, so once I did that and I signed it, he was like, ‘I told y’all. I told y’all.’
“He kept telling me he was going to take me home. The phone was ringing in one of the offices and (Sgt. Russell) got up and he was out maybe 15-20 minutes, and he came back and he was like, ‘that was your mother, come on we got to hurry up and finish this statement because you got to go home.
“Once I sign the statement, he was like ‘I’m about to take you to the precinct so we can get this on camera. Once we do that I’m taking you home.
“Once they got me there, they fingerprinted me, took pictures. And it’s still not registering to me what is really going on. After the interview was over, I’m thinking, ‘okay, I’m about to go home; this is it.’ When I got back in the back of the car, he was like, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but I can’t take you home. I gotta take you to juvenile. Don’t get into trouble; let all this work itself out.’
“I was like, ‘What is going on?’ Everything was moving so fricking fast. I was terrified.’”
The court appointed lawyer David Cook to represent Sanford. “I didn’t like him,” Sanford said. “His main thing was ‘there’s a confession.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t do it.’ That’s when my mother went and got Robert Slameka.
“Every time (Slameka) would come and see me, he’d only see me for like five minutes. He would never bring paperwork. You know how you bring case files? It was never that. He would just come …’how you doing, kiddo; you all right? We’ve got a court date on such-and-such.’ I know that already from our last court date.
“I think he was doing that to please my mother, because my mother being so worried, I know she probably kept calling, ‘what’s going on?’ Okay; he’d come see me for five minutes and let her know he saw me so she could calm down. He would never bring no type of paperwork or nothing.
“We would constantly bump heads about different thing. I said, ‘I would like a jury trial.’ (He said), ‘well, you know, you’re a black kid from the ghetto; these white people from the suburbs are gonna come in here and they’re gonna find you guilty.
“When we would bump heads, he’d go back to my mother, and use my mothers’ worry and hurt, and use it against mem. He’d come to her like ‘I’m the caring lawyer. I care about your son, and I care about you, and I think this is best for your son, but your son don’t don’t know this. I’ve been doing this for these amount of years; you should listen to me.
“She would agree with it, and with that being my mother … how can you say no to your mother when you’re faced in a situation that I was facing?
“At my sentencing date, every time they would ask him something … he would whisper in my ear and say ‘it was a drug house.’ I would just repeat what he was saying in my ear.
“He kept telling me, ‘I’m really cool with the judge. You’re not going to get that much time. You might get like 15 years. You’re young; you’ve got a shot to get out of prison. And I’m like, ‘I’m young. Okay.’ And when I went and got sentenced, I got 39 years.”
Sanford described his first night in prison:
“Jackson’s kind of set up like Shawshank Redemption, with all the bars, and it’s really, really loud … it smells horrible; everyone talking and screaming. I couldn’t sleep; I sat on my bunk. They turned off the lights … once all the lights went off, that’s when it really hit me. I started crying; I’m like ‘whoa.’
“And I looked out, and the only thing I could see is bars and concrete, and that’s when it hit me. I’m in. I’m in prison. I kept looking at my papers with my sentencing, and my earliest release date is 2046. It was hard trying to comprehend everything. At the time, it was still moving so fast. I was in prison in like 8 months. From the streets to prison in 8 months.”
When asked how he got through prison, Sanford said: “You got to. I didn’t have a choice, but to get up and face it. It was hard, but I knew there were people fighting for me. And I knew one day I’d get out of prison; I just didn’t know when; when that would happen, how long it would take.
“I used to look at other cases; I had a book, called “I’m Innocent”; it’s this really big book of wrongful convictions. It would motivate me to see other guys when they were wrongfully convicted get out of prison. And I would try to add up the timeline: It took this guy 17 years; it took another guy 30 years; it took this guy 4 years. I’m like ‘I’m on my 8th year; maybe at the 10 year mark, it’ll be happening for me.
“I had a whole bunch of family support, especially my mother. My lawyers have supported me through everything. Like Val (Newman); I don’t look at her as my mother. I look at her as my second mother. It wasn’t like a lawyer-client relationship, it was like family … they really care about the people they deal with … it’s not something they do to make a living.
“Sometimes when I would go to court, I would think, ‘this is almost over.’ It looked like, ‘it’s almost there. It’s looking good.’ Then: Deny your papers. I would get it in the mail, or I would get a call. The judge denied this motion … this is being appealed. It was frustrating at times.”
When asked how he’s not bitter, Sanford said: “The Tigers game. The Riverwalk. Being able to hug my little nephew and chase him around the house. Being able to see and talk to my mother, hug her whenever I want to now. It’s not no 15-minute phone calls any more. I can call whenever I want. I can go talk to my brother. Being free. Being free. Being free.”
When he found out he was finally going to be released, Sanford said it took time to register. “I was like, ‘really?’ I didn’t know it would happen that quick. I called my mother; she was like ‘have you seen the news?’ … she put Val on the phone; she (said), ‘We’re going to try to get you out today.’ I’m thinking this can’t be real.
“It still hasn’t really, really hit me yet. I thought it was going to hit me and that was going to be that, and I could get over it. But it slowly but surely hit me. Every time I get to open a car door, or go into the refrigerator to get some juice.
“I was with my friends ... and they were like, ‘what is wrong with you? You got like 20 packs of gum.’ (I said) ‘we didn’t have this in prison. And I sat there the whole day yesterday chewing on different gums. We didn’t have that in prison. Just chewing gum feels so good.”
Now, Sanford says he is talking to children about staying out of trouble. “If you don’t care about your future, who will? For every action there comes consequences. Your actions affect you and everyone else around you. I did 8 years for a crime I didn’t commit. I’ve been through hell 10 times. I don’t want to see a young person in Detroit go through what I’ve been through off their actions, meaning they’re hanging with the wrong people. I’ve got friends that’s never getting out of prison. Fortunately, I was blessed with opportunity, because I didn’t do it.
“I know what it’s like in there, and I know what type of decisions guys are making out here. A lot of them are like really, really bad. That’s what I was thinking in prison: ‘Maybe when I get out, I’ll just go talk to them, and them know the decision they’re making they don’t just affect you; they affect everyone around you.
“Everybody talks about building this bridge, or building this building, it’s the future of Detroit; it’s for our future. Well, what about the youth of Detroit? Without the youth of Detroit, Detroit won’t have a future.
“Invest in the kids. Show them there’s people out there that really care … don’t get mad if they have a slip up and give up on them; as long as they’re trying, that’s all that matters. Sometimes it may take them 3,4,5,6 times.
“Once you make a person … conscious of their decision-making, and the consequences … I guarantee you a lot of kids will start to try. Because they don’t want to go to the place where I just came from. It’s hell. They tell you when you eat, when you take a shower. If they don’t want you to eat, you’re not going to eat. If they don’t want you to take a shower, you’re not going to take a shower.
“Then what? You gonna call and tell your mother? They don’t care about that. They rip your mail up.
“Do want to go through that? Do you want to be locked in your cell 23 hours a day for hanging with the wrong crowd, or off a lapse in judgement and rushing to do something? Just slow down, think about it again, then think about it again.”
“Look at everything they took me through. Tried to break me. I was a liar; I was guilty, I was a murderer. They got to live with this the rest of their life. I wasn’t the one who initiated it; I wasn’t the one that did it. If I was guilty, they sent me to prison, basically forcing me to accept responsibility for their actions. So why can’t they do it? They do it every day when they lock people up for crimes they didn’t commit. We got to answer to somebody. It’s crazy; the same people that tell us the right and the wrong thing to do, they go out and do something it’s okay for them to do it. It’s consequences for us, but not for them. And it’s totally wrong.”
When asked if he has faith in the criminal justice system, he said: “No, but you’ve got to remember, it was people in the system who worked to get my case overturned. The state police; the lawyers. So I don’t have faith in the system, but there are people in the system who do care.”