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Detroit man who as teen confessed to killing 4 walks out of prison

Last Updated Jun 8, 2016 7:37 PM EDT

DETROIT -- A man who entered prison as a teenager in 2008 stepped out into sunshine and freedom Wednesday, a day after his guilty pleas to four fatal shootings were erased by a judge at the request of prosecutors who conceded the case was compromised by flawed police work.

Davontae Sanford, 23, declined to speak to reporters as he left prison in Ionia in western Michigan with a brother and a lawyer. They drove off in a sedan for the 130-mile trip back to Detroit.

"I feel blessed," said Sanford's mother, Taminko Sanford, who stayed behind to greet her son at home.

She was too emotional to make the two hour trip.

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Taminko Sanford.

CBS News

On Wednesday night, she will finally get to hold him.

"I think when I hold him it will be real I haven't touched him, hugged him, anything in eight years," she told CBS News' Michelle Miller.

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In this June 30, 2010 file photo, Davontae Sanford sits in a Detroit courtroom.

AP

Sanford, who is blind in one eye, was 14 years old when he approached police at the scene of a murder and was arrested, reported CBS Detroit. He admitted to the crime and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, but his family argued the Sanford is developmentally disabled and was coerced by authorities to confess under interrogation without a parent or attorney present.

At 15, he was sentenced to a minimum of 39 years in prison.

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Davontae Sanford walking out of prison.

CBS News

The case appeared closed and unremarkable until lawyers discovered that a hit man had confessed to the same so-called Runyon Street murders, along with eight other killings, just 15 days after Sanford was sent to prison in 2008. That touched off years of efforts to get the guilty pleas set aside, but prosecutors resisted at every turn until state police last year were asked to take a fresh look.

The agreement to throw out the convictions doesn't mention the hit man, Vincent Smothers. Instead, prosecutor Kym Worthy said Detroit police -- not Sanford -- had drawn a diagram of the murder scene. She said that "seriously undermines" the entire case.

In a July 23, 2010 file photo, Vincent Smothers stands in Judge Craig Strong's courtroom in Detroit.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File

"No one can give Davontae Sanford and his family back the nine years he has spent in jail for a crime he did not commit, but the court's decision corrects a grave injustice," said Heidi Naasko, an attorney for Sanford.

David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school, said Sanford's time in prison reflected a "complete breakdown" in the justice system.

Smothers is in prison for 52 years after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight other killings. He has said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade but would never take on a kid like Sanford as a sidekick.

In an affidavit filed in court last year, the 35-year-old described in great detail how he and another man carried out the Runyon Street attacks. He said he scouted the house for weeks, even playing catch one day with a buddy so he could get a feel for the neighborhood.

"I hope to have the opportunity to testify in court to provide details and drawings of the crime scene that could only be known by the person who committed the crime: me," Smothers said in the affidavit.

He told The Associated Press during a prison interview in 2012 that he wanted to help Sanford.

"I understand what prison life is like. It's miserable. To be here and be innocent -- I don't know what it's like," Smothers said. "He's a kid, and I hate for him to do the kind of time they're giving him."