I’m posting late tonight. I have just slept off a headache, and am now settling into the unpleasant task of writing about a situation that epitomizes everything I have moved out here into Nature to get away from.
Oh well—as they say, you can run but you cannot hide. The culture of urban violence and official corruption is an unavoidable fact of life in America, all the more so when you consider that it is destroying the lives of innocent children and their families. We cannot stand by silently and just watch.
I think the thing that has most gotten me into a surly mood is that I know at the outset of this task that I have no pearls of wisdom to offer you. I have spent the whole day investigating an outrageous story of justice denied, and my head is swimming in a mess of facts—claims and counter-claims—and a whole bunch of strange names of people I do not understand and have no desire to ever get to know on any level whatsoever: i.e., “Tone Tone”, “Milk Dud”, “Bug”, “T”, and “Homie”. This story began with a contract “hit” of four people in a drug house on Runion Street in East Detroit on September 17, 2007. Not my world.
A one-eyed developmentally disabled 14-year-old black kid named Davontae Sanford, transfixed by the intense excitement of the crime scene (which was just a short distance from his home), stepped forward to offer police an elaborate and fictional account of the crime which he could not have witnessed, and unwittingly became a convenient target of suspicion. He was taken to the police station, interrogated without a parent or lawyer present, and tricked and coerced into admitting to the murders. He signed a detailed typed confession that he could not have composed or even understood (because, according to his family, he could only read at a third-grade level and had the mental capacity of an 8- or 9-year-old).
Police and prosecutors ignored credible evidence exonerating Davontae—for example, the testimony of a police chaplain who lived down the street from the crime scene, who had exchanged gunfire with the two perpetrators who were much taller than Davontae (physical descriptions which continue to be absent in prosecutors’ briefs to this day). Davontae’s mother hired a lazy, crooked, and incompetent lawyer—she didn’t know—who advised the kid to cop to a plea based on nonexistent evidence. Based almost solely on his false confession, Davontae was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to 37-90 years in prison.
After Davontae began serving his sentence, Vincent Smothers, a contract killer, was arrested in 2008 and charged with nearly a dozen murders, including the murder of the wife of a Detroit police officer. Smothers confessed to the Runyon Street murders and named an accomplice—Ernest Nemo Davis. Smothers told the police they had the wrong guy locked up for his crimes and provided a confession which included details only the true perpetrator could have known, as well as a motive. There’s no dispute that Smothers confessed to the Runyon Street slayings, but prosecutors have never charged him or Davis with the murders and have never explained why.
Instead, the Wayne County prosecutors have fought tooth and nail every effort of Davontae’s attorney to get evidence of Smothers’ confession into evidence at a post-conviction hearing.
Late last night a reader sent me a link to an Associated Press story by Ed White that Smothers, who had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to personally testify for Davontae (but would allow his former attorney to relate his testimony—an offer prosecutors rejected and blocked) has apparently seen the light. In an interview with AP reporter White, Smothers has said he’s now willing to testify to right this wrong.
Now here’s the thing that really got me wound up on this story. Despite the stench of prosecutorial malfeasance, at no place in his story did White ever name any of the prosecutors involved. Not only do they have legal immunity which encourages “winning at any cost” misconduct, but the prosecutors are not even being held publicly accountable for their behavior by the press.
Not even was the elected Wayne County Prosecutor, Kym Worthy, named. She is a politician who boasts of being “The Toughest Woman in Detroit,” and has proposed jailing parents who fail to show up for teacher conferences at their children’s schools. Apparently she confuses acting with integrity with being a softy. Too bad. (I need to look into whether she failed her ethics courses at the University of Notre Dame Law School.)
This morning I did some digging and learned that Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Thomas M. Chambers is currently overseeing the Prosecutor Office’s maneuvers to keep Davontae locked up despite ample exculpatory evidence. I haven’t been able to learn much yet about Chambers, but I did make a fascinating discovery about what may be behind the prosecutors’ zeal in refusing to admit to a miscarriage of justice.
In The People’s Brief in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea, Chambers states: “The People are cognizant that Defendant is arguing, essentially, that Defendant was spoon-fed the details and information to put into his confession. In order for this Court to find that to be the case, this Court would have to find that Sgt. (Michael) Russell, a seasoned Detroit Homicide Sergeant, with no shown motive to lie, lied at the waiver trial when he testified that he did not tell Defendant what to say, nor did he tell Defendant what to put in his statement.” Yet Davontae’s family says Davontae was shown crime scene photographs and was subjected to other coercive techniques which Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) says are standard practice in police interrogations of young people.
According to the CWCY: There is no doubt that, contrary to what seems logical, people do falsely confess to heinous crimes. In all studies of false confessions, youth are overrepresented.
Traditional (and legal) police interrogation tactics focus on convincing the suspect that their situation is hopeless, that their guilt is already known, and that the only way to improve their situation is to confess. Police accomplish this goal by relentless and intense leading questions to suspects, rejecting any denials of guilt from the suspect, lying about the evidence they have, minimizing the culpability or moral reprehensibility of the crime, and making implied promises of leniency.
Police use these same interrogation tactics with young suspects!
These tactics are tailor-made to get young people to confess, even innocent young people. Exonerated youth who falsely confessed often explain that they confessed merely to stop the intense interrogation so they could go home. Youth are taught to trust the police and categorically are unable to view long-term consequences like adults. Even though they were confessing to heinous crime, these young people actually believed they could go home if they confessed.
Police are trained to avoid all these same techniques when they interview young victims so that they can be assured the victims’ statements are reliable. There is no reason this same caution should not be used when interviewing young suspects.
However, I do not believe the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is going to the mat just to protect one Homicide Sergeant. No, it goes deeper than that. The most intriguing thing I discovered is that Davontae’s original prosecutor was a man named Patrick Muscat—the son of a cop—who, ironically enough, has since been promoted to Director of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s “Conviction Integrity Unit” (CIU).
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has been scoring a lot of political points using the work of the Conviction Integrity Unit—most notably the audit by the CIU of sexual assault kits recovered in Detroit Police Department property, for which in 2011 she was included as a speaker at the prestigious Oxford Round Table at Oxford University, England.
If it became widely known that Muscat used a coerced false confession to frame a mentally disabled child for four murders that were actually carried out by a professional hit man—a hit man who confessed to the murders and scoffs at the idea of Davontae having been an accomplice—this would not only be personally embarrassing to Kym Worthy, but would call into question the whole idea of “Integrity” in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
Bottom line, it’s all about self-preservation and the sacrifice of another throw-away child to crass political ambition. It makes me sick. And my headache’s returned.
Groove of the Day