Detroit Cops Who Fabricated Evidence to Wrongfully Convict 14-Year-Old Not on Prosecutor’s Brady List
by Dale Chappell
An officer from the Detroit, Michigan, Police Department who fabricated evidence in order to convict a 14-year-old boy of murders he didn’t commit were not on the list of problem officers that prosecutors shouldn’t call as witnesses. Now the family wants to know why.
Davontae Sanford was just 14 when two Detroit officers coerced him into confessing to murders he didn’t commit and fabricated evidence to convict him. He served nine years in prison until prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges in 2016 after a state police investigation uncovered the officers’ misconduct.
This past July, when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy released a list of 35 officers who prosecutors should not rely on as witnesses, Lt. Michael Russell and former police commander James Tolbert weren’t on that list. They’re the two officers who falsified the evidence against Sanford.
“I was furious,” said his mother Taminko Sanford-Tilmon. “I didn’t understand why their names weren’t on the list.” She said the two officers robbed her son of nine years of his childhood, including his prom, graduation, and his grandmother’s death. “It would have given me and my son closure,” she said. Worthy still defended Sanford’s conviction, even after the false evidence was uncovered.
So-called “Brady lists,” named after the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland holding that prosecutors must turn over favorable evidence to defendants, are used across the country by prosecutors to flag law enforcement officers who can’t be relied on in court to give honest testimony. In the list, Worthy put out, a majority of the officers were from the Detroit Police Department.
Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said that Brady lists not only identify problem officers but can also help deter police misconduct.
“They can be an effective deterrent for police accountability,” Trivedi says. “They can break the logjam of being unable to remove problematic police.” They not only have to identify all of the officers who have been caught doing inappropriate things but also “have to accurately contain exactly what the police officer did and every instance of it.”
The problem is that most prosecutors rely on the police departments themselves to report which officers they deem unreliable. “This is like me putting my friend on a bad kids list,” says Nick Buckingham of the Michigan Liberation. “What police officer of what police department wants to identify officers that are currently working there to be on the list?”
Critics say the public should also have a say in which officers make the list. Worthy said the public is able to alert her to officers they deem to be untrustworthy for consideration of the Brady list.
“The purpose behind all of this is public trust,” Trivedi said. “We want people and communities to feel that the justice system is fair, and if the list is sort of a black box coming out of the prosecutor’s office and we don’t know how it was populated, then of course mistakes are going to be made, people are going to be left off the list, and it’s not going to serve its purpose.”
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