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Innocence be Damned: Prosecutors Who Disregard Justice in Push to Win at Any Cost

by Dale Chappell

The prosecutor’s goal “is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done,” the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935). Some prosecutors, however, are clearly not guided by the high court’s admonition; on the contrary, they believe that their job is to win—at any cost.

Over the last 25 years, more than 2,150 prisoners have been proven innocent. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld’s Innocence Project has freed more than 200 of them since its creation in 1992, while other organizations spawned from their project have freed many others wrongfully imprisoned.

Inexplicably, some prosecutors fight to keep even those proven factually innocent behind bars. These prosecutors do not merely delay justice; they actively work against it. When a prisoner is exonerated by a court, these prosecutors file appeal after appeal, or indict the exoneree all over again, instead of trying to find the actual perpetrator.

When Davontae Sanford was 14 years old, he confessed after a late-night interrogation to murdering four people in a Detroit drug house. Sanford said he was told by cops that he could go home if he gave them “something.” He did, and on the advice of counsel, who was later suspended for misconduct, he pleaded guilty and got 29 to 92 years in prison.

Just days after Sanford was sentenced to prison, a hit man named Vincent Smothers admitted to killing the four people that Sanford had pleaded guilty to killing. Smothers’ confession was corroborated when the gun was recovered, and ballistics matched it to the murders. Smothers even gave a sworn affidavit in 2015 that Sanford was not involved in the murders “in any way.”

Smothers admitted to 12 contract killings in total. However, he was never convicted or even charged with the four murders pinned on Sanford. Smother pleaded guilty to the other eight murders that he also admitted were his work. Sanford remained in prison when he was clearly innocent. In 2009, it was leaked that police had failed to turn over Smothers’ confession to Sanford’s lawyers, and Sanford petitioned to withdraw his guilty plea based on the new evidence. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy opposed Sanford’s petition all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which agreed with Worthy that actual innocence is not a valid reason to withdraw a guilty plea (which would lead one to conclude that the term ‘criminal justice system’ is a misnomer).

In 2015, lawyers for Sanford filed a post-conviction motion challenging his wrongful conviction. After Michigan State Police reinvestigated the case, they issued a 117-page report that concluded (1) Sanford was innocent, (2) Smothers and an accomplice were guilty of the murders, and (3) Detroit’s then-deputy police chief, James Tolbert, had lied in order to convict Sanford. Worthy finally agreed to Sanford’s release—but only because of Tolbert’s lies, she clarified, and not because Sanford was innocent.

In July 2017, Sanford filed a civil lawsuit under Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, and the Michigan Attorney General conceded in just four months that Sanford was innocent and wrongfully imprisoned. He was awarded $408,356.16 on December 21, 2017, for the nine years he spent in prison.

In another case prosecuted by Worthy, Lamarr Monson was convicted in 1996 of the murder of a 12-year-old girl and received a sentence of 30 to 50 years in prison. Nearly 20 years later, David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, examined the ceramic toilet lid Monson supposedly used to “stab” his victim to death. The toilet lid was covered in bloody fingerprints, but they were never tested. When Moran had them tested, they matched a man named Robert Lewis, not Monson.

During a four-month-long evidentiary hearing in 2016, Lewis’ then live-in girlfriend testified that he came home the night of the murder with “blood on him; it was dripping off his fingernails.” The assistant prosecutor, David McCreedy, blew it off, saying that Lewis might have wandered by the apartment while the building manager was on the phone with 911 and moved the toilet lid out of the way to help. Moran responded by observing, “There might be 12 gullible citizens that would buy that, but that’s why we need a new trial: to see if the state can find them.”

The court granted Monson a new trial, and Worthy dismissed the case in August 2017 due to “destruction of the evidence and the possible coercive conduct” of Monson’s investigators. Worthy maintained that Monson was guilty and refused to charge Lewis with the murder.

After Monson’s exoneration, Worthy made a public statement that Monson had sex with the 12-year-old victim. Moran, in Monson’s defense, said the accusation was “false and disturbing” and pointed out that “it is unethical for a prosecutor, upon dismissing charges against a defendant, to then publicly defame the defendant.”

When pressed as to what evidence she had to support her accusation that Monson had sex with the victim, Worthy cited his alleged statements in connection with his so-called confession—the same statements that she admitted were likely coerced and “support[ ] Monson’s defense of a false confession.” That is the type of tortured reasoning and dissembling often present in cases where prosecutors are loathed to admit they convicted an innocent person even in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing to that conclusion.

Denying innocence means the actual perpetrators remain free, which poses a clear and present danger to public safety. According to data collected by the Innocence Project, 356 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989. Of those cases, 152 actual perpetrators were identified, and they were free to commit “150 additional violent crimes,” which included rapes and murders. Convicting innocent people takes a high toll on the wrongfully convicted as well as society at large.

After Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted in a Texas court of murdering his wife in 1997, DNA evidence later showed Mark Alan Norwood, not Morton, was the true killer. Prosecutors in the case had illegally withheld exculpatory evidence, and Norwood went on to rape and kill another woman in the same fashion.

Ken Anderson, the lead prosecutor who withheld the crucial evidence, later became a district court judge after Morton’s conviction. Judge Anderson was then criminally charged and pleaded guilty to felony criminal contempt. He was disbarred and no longer able to serve as a lawyer or judge.

To their credit, some prosecutors have worked to free innocent prisoners. After fighting to allow the release of an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned for 26 years, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said, “my job is not to defend convictions, it’s to defend justice.” The state of our criminal justice system would be far better off than it is today if only all prosecutors took Berger’s teachings to heart as Cuccinelli clearly has.  


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