DETROIT -- A judge dismissed charges Tuesday and closed a murder case against a young Detroit man who went to prison as a teen for four slayings that were eventually linked to a hit man.
Though Davontae Sanford, 23, was released from prison June 8, a day after his convictions were thrown out at the request of a prosecutor, Judge Brian Sullivan still needed to dismiss the murder charges to guarantee his freedom. Sullivan acted with some reluctance, saying in a seven-page order that he had many concerns about the case.
"The determination of whether to proceed or not to proceed is a matter vested by law within the province of the prosecutor," Sullivan said. "This court will not second-guess that judgment."
Sanford, who served eight years in prison, didn't know about the judge's order until informed by The Associated Press. "Wow!" he said before taking a call from his lawyer.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Sanford's guilty pleas in 2008 were spoiled after state police found misconduct by Detroit police. But the case had many problems, including an extraordinary confession by a hit man who said he committed the so-called Runyon Street slayings in 2007, not Sanford, who was just 14 at the time.
At age 15, Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the middle of trial, a decision that his appellate lawyers blamed on a woeful defense attorney. He was sentenced to at least 39 years in prison.
Efforts to get him out of prison lasted years but gained momentum in 2015 when law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University took up his cause with a point-by-point rebuttal of the case. The cornerstone of their challenge: a detail-rich affidavit by hit man Vincent Smothers, who explained how he killed the four people in a drug house.
In his order, the judge said he read the state police report on the killings but remains troubled.
"This case is thick with speculation, conjecture, confusion and unanswered questions; far thinner on evidence," Sullivan said, adding that the "confusion needs to be clarified" for families of the four victims, Sanford and a surviving witness to the killings.