Highland Park deputy police chief involved in framing of Detroit youth

Davontae Sanford was 14 years old when he was convicted of a quadruple homicide that he did not commit. One of the police officers involved with his wrongful conviction is back to work in Highland Park and community activists are demanding justice. | Photo: Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

By Debra Simmons

What should happen to a police officer, a detective and a prosecuting attorney that conspired to send a 14-year-old youth to prison for a quadruple murder he did not commit?

Sadly, quite often, this happens to far too many people than we would care to think about.

Davontae Sanford was that 14-year-old youth back in 2007 who was framed by police officer James Tolbert and coerced by Detective Michael Russell into admitting to a quadruple murder on Runyon Street in Detroit. Sanford, it turned out, knew nothing about the homicides.  

Even before Sanford was convicted and sentenced to 90 years in prison, Russell had obtained information related to hitman Vincent Smothers, who confessed to all four murders. Russell and Tolbert simply refused to investigate the hitman’s claims, only to say that Sanford had already confessed to the murders.

Eight months into Sanford’s prison term, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy became fully aware that a hired killer had confessed to the quadruple murder. Nonetheless, this official chose to do nothing until a Michigan State Police investigation revealed evidence that Tolbert actually sketched a picture of the murder scene and then lied under oath claiming Sanford had drawn the depiction of the crime location.

Moreover, Russell interrogated this 14-year-old without parental or legal representation for two days. Sanford went without sleep and food, and was promised to be taken home if he would help them by telling them what he knew about the murders. After being sleep deprived, hungry, confused, exhausted and anxious to go home, this young person was ready to confess to anything.

Because of the actions of these three unethical officials, they cheated a young man out of nine of his formative years, which he can never get back. Davontae Sanford is now 27.

Sanford’s life has not been a bowl of cherries. Nevertheless, these three individuals (two police officers and the Wayne County prosecutor) have been able to have a thriving life without missing a beat from 2007 to 2019.  

This same Wayne County prosecutor has continued to be re-elected unchallenged over the years. Tolbert has been given a pass by his colleagues to continue wearing the blue uniform, despite the fact that he is a lying, corrupt cop.

Russell was a key player in the Sanford false conviction. Since the 2007 framing of Sanford, Russell continued his work in the department until May 2019.

Back in May, during an ongoing federal civil lawsuit filed by the Sanford family seeking damages from the City of Detroit for the false conviction and imprisonment of Devontae, it was revealed that Russell had lied about the 2007 prosecution. Current Detroit Police Chief James Craig placed Russell on restricted duty pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Craig said that he could not have untruthful police working in the streets because their testimony would be unreliable in court.

Community activists demand redress

In the meantime, a local Detroit organization called the Moratorium Now! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs has conducted two successful protests against James Tolbert being hired as deputy chief of police in Highland Park. These actions were carried out on May 2 and May 30 in front of the Highland Park Administration Building on Woodward Avenue. Another picket line is scheduled for Thursday, June 13, from noon to 1PM at the same location.

After leaving the Detroit Police Department, Tolbert served as chief of police in Flint until 2015. He was hired during the period of emergency management imposed by former Governor Rick Snyder. Due to Snyder and his cronies, the water system was poisoned, leaving scores dead and severely injured with chronic illnesses.

Under Tolbert’s leadership as chief of police, activists protesting the water crisis in Flint were arrested. Tolbert was terminated after the election of Mayor Karen Weaver. Now, he has shown up in Highland Park, a municipal enclave surrounded by Detroit.

The Moratorium Now! Coalition is demanding that Tolbert be relieved of his duties and never to be allowed to ever wear the blue uniform again.

Debra Simmons is a veteran community organizer who worked for many years as an educator in Detroit. She is a member of the Moratorium Now! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs

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