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State cops enter dispute over Detroit hit man's confession, teen's conviction

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DETROIT — Prosecutors have turned to Michigan State Police for help as two law schools try to overturn the conviction of a young Detroit man who was 15 years old when he pleaded guilty to killing four people.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy for years has refused to retreat from Davontae Sanford's conviction — despite a hit man's confession to the same crime.

But on May 4, Worthy asked state police for "investigative assistance" after a new, highly publicized effort to clear Sanford was launched. The letter to the director, Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, was obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.

The 2007 case, known as the Runyon Street murders, had been handled by Detroit police.

A hit man, Vincent "Vito" Smothers, confessed to police in 2008 but never was charged in the Runyon killings. He apparently had no idea that someone else had been convicted. By that time, Sanford was in prison for second-degree murder and just starting a 39-year sentence.

A state police spokesman, Lt. Mike Shaw, said his agency accepted Worthy's request, although he declined to describe the exact scope of the work.

"We do not discuss what our investigators are doing, step-by-step, as they complete their task," Shaw told AP this week. "Once they have completed their work, they will forward their findings back to the prosecutor."

Worthy's spokeswoman, Maria Miller, declined to comment. David Moran of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school also declined to comment.

PHOTO: FILE - In this June 30, 2010 file photo, Davontae Sanford sits in a Detroit courtroom. Prosecutors have turned to Michigan State Police for help as two law schools seek to overturn the conviction of Sanford , who was 15 when he pleaded guilty to killing four people. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
FILE - In this June 30, 2010 file photo, Davontae Sanford sits in a Detroit courtroom. Prosecutors have turned to Michigan State Police for help as two law schools seek to overturn the conviction of Sanford , who was 15 when he pleaded guilty to killing four people. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

In April, the clinic, along with Northwestern University law school, announced a new attempt to get Sanford's murder conviction thrown out. Their court filing includes a deeply detailed affidavit from Smothers, who insists that he and an accomplice — not Sanford — killed the four victims at a house on Runyon Street. He said he was hired by a drug dealer.

Smothers already is in prison for eight other killings that he quickly confessed to in 2008.

In her letter, Worthy said state police are "ideally suited" to assist her. Indeed, state police already are familiar with Smothers. He voluntarily gave an interview in prison in 2013 and described how the Runyon victims were shot.

At the time, detective Sgt. Chris Corriveau was investigating possible perjury by a retired police officer in an earlier bid to get Sanford's conviction overturned.

"I have nothing to lose and nothing to gain, either. You'll find out that I have not lied about anything," Smothers told Corriveau, according to a transcript.

Smothers, 34, will be eligible for parole when he's 79.

Sanford, now 22, lived in the Runyon neighborhood. He approached officers at the scene and subsequently confessed, although his written statement had many inaccuracies and no recording of the interrogation was made. He was 14.

Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the middle of trial. Moran of the Michigan law school said Sanford was poorly served by his trial lawyer.


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