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Sanford v. Russel

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 10, 2019

DAVONTAE SANFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL RUSSELL and JAMES TOLBERT, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          DAVID M. LAWSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendants Michael Russell and James Tolbert move for a summary judgment of dismissal of all claims brought against them by plaintiff Davontae Sanford. Sanford alleged in a complaint that when he was fourteen years old, he was coerced into confessing and pleading guilty to murdering four people, largely based on the misconduct of the defendants, who were Detroit police officers at the time. After another person confessed to the crimes and confirmed that Sanford was not involved, a state police investigation uncovered evidence that lent substance to Sanford's claims. The defendants argue here that discovery has not borne out the allegations in Sanford's complaint, and that the undisputed facts require judgment in their favor as a matter of law. The Court disagrees and will deny the motion for summary judgment.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         The facts of the case as taken from the complaint were discussed at length in the opinion and order denying the present defendants' motion to dismiss. See Sanford v. City of Detroit, No. 17-13062, 2018 WL 6331342, at *1-4 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 4, 2018). The following factual record was developed through the discovery taken in the case.

         A. The Murders on Runyon

         Street Former hitman Vincent Smothers testified under oath that, on September 17, 2007, he and an accomplice, Ernest Davis, murdered Michael Robinson at his home on Runyon Street, on the east side of Detroit. Vincent Smothers dep., ECF No. 170-5, PageID.8386-87. Smothers was hired to kill Robinson by Leroy Payne. Id. at PageID.8388. Smothers assumed that Payne wanted Robinson killed because he was a rival drug dealer. Ibid. Smothers used an AK-47 rifle, and Davis used a .45 caliber pistol for the hit. Id. at PageID.8389. Smothers was dressed in a Carharrt “overall jumpsuit” and wore a ski mask. Id. at PageID.8392. He also found a .40 caliber pistol at the scene, lying on a coffee table next to Robinson's dead body, which he took with him when he left. Id. at 8389. Smothers later informed police that two of the weapons involved in the murders had been hidden at a house on Promenade Street. Both the .45 and .40 caliber pistols were recovered by police from the residence. Id. at 8390.

         Smothers initiated the attack by attempting to push open the front door; when the door was opened from the inside, Davis began shooting through the front window at a person who could be seen sitting on a couch. Smothers dep. at PageID.8391. Smothers fired through the front door, hitting the person who had opened it. Ibid. As Smothers burst into the house, he saw a woman who was inside “run[] past into a hallway and out of [his] field of view.” Ibid. Once inside, Smothers saw several persons in the front room who were hit by gunfire. The assault on the home ended with four people dead. Id. at 8392.

         The first arriving officers on the scene found four dead bodies in the front room of the home. In the southwest bedroom of the home a woman, Valerie Glover, was suffering from several gunshot wounds; her seven-year-old son, also in the room, was unharmed. Incident Report dated Sept. 17, 2007, ECF No. 170-6, PageID.8402. Glover testified that she was shot five times while she was in and running from the front room of the house, and that she then ran and hid in the bedroom. Valerie Glover dep., ECF No. 170-7, PageID.8763, 8769. Smothers attested in an affidavit that as he was going through the house, he found Glover hiding under a bed in a back room, and she said, “Don't kill me”; Smothers assured her that he would not kill her, and he told her to stay in the bedroom until he had left the house. Smothers aff. ¶ 41, ECF No. 170-8, PageID.8784.

         Smothers attested that he did not know Davontae Sanford or any of his family. He also verified that Sanford was not present during the attack, nor was he involved in any way with the planning of the hit, which was done entirely by Smothers and Davis. Smothers dep. at 8393-94.

         B. The Police Investigation

         Defendant Michael Russell was assigned to the Detroit police homicide department in September 2007. He was dispatched to investigate the Runyon Street murders and arrived on the scene with another Detroit police investigator, Dale Collins, and a K-9 unit. Criminal Trial Tr., ECF No. 170-10, PageID.8870, 8878. In September 2007, due to his supervisory role, Tolbert was “never directly investigating homicides.” Tolbert dep. at PageID.8802. However, when the Runyon Street murders occurred, he was on the scene within hours. Id. at PageID.8805. Tolbert subsequently spent hours at the scene investigating and attempting to piece together what had happened. Id. at PageID.8806-08.

         Sanford recalled that he encountered Russell outside, on a street near his home, early in the morning of September 18, 2018, when the two walked up to each other and had a conversation. Davontae Sanford dep., ECF No. 170-12, PageID.8941-43. Russell asked Sanford who he was, where he lived, and if he had “seen anything”; he responded that he had not. Id. at PageID.8944. Sanford says that, after a brief conversation, the officers took Sanford to his home and spoke to his grandmother. Id. at PageID.8948. At some point Tolbert was told by defendant Russsell that Russell had a person who might know about the crime and identified the person as Sanford. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8810. Russell and Tolbert went to Sanford's home, spoke to Sanford's grandmother, and got her permission to question the boy. Ibid. The police told Sanford's grandmother that they wanted to talk to him to see if he had any information about what was “going on in the area, ” and she then signed a consent form allowing the police to talk to Sanford. Sanford dep. at PageID.8949-50.

         Sanford then got into a police car with Russell, and they drove around to various places, passing some houses and stopping at a Coney Island restaurant. Sanford dep. at PageID.8951. Tolbert testified that they drove around in the police car with Sanford for some length of time, during which he asked Sanford questions. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8811. Tolbert and Russell both were in the car, along with another police investigator and Sanford. Id. at PageID.8813-14. During that initial interview in the car, Sanford “did not make any admissions concerning the crime.” Id. at PageID.8813. However, the police asked Sanford about “who . . . in the neighborhood [sells] drugs and different things like that, ” and Sanford “gave them two or three names.” Sanford dep. at PageID.8951.

         Russell later interviewed Sanford at police headquarters for around three or four hours, starting at 4:00 a.m. on September 18, 2018. Trial Tr. at PageID.8887; Tolbert dep. at PageID.8816-17. During that interview Sanford did not make any admissions to involvement in the crime. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8817. After the interview, the police took Sanford back home, where he went inside and fell asleep on the couch. Sanford dep. at PageID.8961.

         Sometime in the evening of the 18th, after dark, Russell again went to Sanford's home and requested permission to interview him; Sanford's mother gave her permission for the police to talk to Sanford again. Trial Tr. at PageID.8887; Sanford dep. at PageID.8961. Russell woke Sanford up, and he told Sanford's mother that he thought Sanford “had some information about the Runyon Street murders, ” but that he “wasn't being forthcoming.” Sanford dep. at PageID.8961. Russell had Sanford's mother sign a consent form and then they left to go back to the police station. Ibid. During the drive to the police station, Russell said to Sanford, “You know you haven't been telling the truth, ” and he told Sanford - falsely- that tests on his shoes had indicated the presence of blood. Id. at PageID.8967. At the police station, in the interview room, Russell “whipped out a camera from his desk, [and] got to showing [Sanford] pictures of the crime scene, ” and said “This is not a game. These people lost their lives.” Id. at PageID.8969.

         Tolbert and Russell both were present during the interview when a sketch of the crime scene was created; Russell was sitting beside Sanford the entire time while the drawing was made. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8821-23. Sanford did not create the diagram. Tolbert admits that the drawing was done by him, and that he spent several minutes drawing out the detailed sketch in his own hand. He explained that he was able accurately to recall the layout due to his extensive observations of the crime scene. Id. at PageID.8838-39. After he finished drawing the diagram, Tolbert put down the pen and told Sanford to “draw where the bodies was at [sic], ” and Sanford did so. Sanford dep. at PageID.8977. However, Sanford attested that he knew where to draw the bodies in only because Russell had shown him photos of the crime scene depicting where the bodies were. Sanford decl. ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 170-16, PageID.9010. Sanford insists that he had no involvement in the murders, never was inside the Runyon Street home, and did not know anything about the bodies except what Russell told and showed him. Ibid.; Sanford dep. at PageID.8987.

         Tolbert then left the room, and Russell continued to question Sanford. Sanford dep. at PageID.8979. The questioning continued for “a couple of hours.” Id. at PageID.8981. During the questioning, while discussing details of the crime, Russell “suggest[ed] stuff” to Sanford if Sanford's responses “didn't go with what [Russell] was saying.” Id. at PageID.8982-83. Sanford attested that he could not recall what specific details Russell supplied to him that were recorded in his statement, but he insists that everything in his statement about the circumstances of the murder must have come from Russell, because he was not involved in the killings and did not know any details about them. Sanford decl. ¶¶ 2-3, PageID.9010. At some point during the interview a phone rang, and Russell went to answer it; when he returned from taking the call, he said to Sanford, “We gotta hurry up. Let[']s finish this so I can get you home so you can be in school tomorrow.” Id. at PageID.8984. However, at the end of the interview, Sanford was arrested and charged with the four murders. Id. at PageID.8985-86.

         Tolbert understood that the sketch was “important evidence” because it showed that “Sanford knew details about the crime scene he could only know if he was guilty”; in fact Tolbert considered the diagram to be a “critical” piece of evidence. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8823-24, 8831-32. However, Tolbert recalled that he had “absolutely not” ever drawn a sketch of a crime scene and asked a suspect to fill in details before, and he admitted that “it was just this case” when that was done. Id. at 8824. In fact, the process of creating the sketch “stood out in [Tolbert's] mind, ” because he “never did it before.” Id. at PageID.8825. Tolbert admitted that he later testified at the plaintiff's bench trial that he found it “significant” that the plaintiff was able to draw details into the sketch such as the location of the television set in the living room; but that testimony was false, because Tolbert himself drew those details into the sketch. Id. at PageID.8828. Tolbert further testified at the criminal trial that the plaintiff had drawn “everything” in the sketch except defendant Russell's signature. Id. at PageID.8830. Russell also testified that he considered the sketch to be “important evidence that Davontae Sanford was telling the truth when he stated that he was involved in the shooting, ” because “it showed he knew details about the crime scene that he could only know if he was guilty.” Russell dep. at PageID.9102.

         During a 2010 evidentiary hearing in the state court, Tolbert testified about the sketch again. He attested that nobody had entered the home after the shootings, and the bodies could not be seen from the outside, so the only way someone could know the locations of the bodies was if they were in the house during the shooting or its aftermath. Evid. Hrg. Tr., ECF No. 170-11, PageID.8928-29. Tolbert again attested that the sketch was “done entirely in the defendant's hand, ” that “all he gave [Sanford] was a blank piece of paper, ” and that Sanford “drew everything on it except for Sergeant Russell's signature.” Id. at PageID.8930.

         Russell testified during both the preliminary examination and the criminal trial that, during the evening interview on September 18th, Sanford drew a diagram of the murder scene, which was entered into evidence as part of his confession statement. Trial Tr. at PageID.8891; Prelim. Exam. Tr. at PageID.9075. However, Russell insisted that Sanford drew the sketch entirely on his own. Prelim. Exam. Tr. at PageID.9075. Russell also testified that he never showed Sanford any photographs of the crime scene. Id. at PageID.9076.

         At the end of the interview, Sanford signed a written confession, which was read into evidence at his preliminary examination. Prelim. Exam. Tr., ECF No. 170-20, PageID.9068-71. According to the statement, on September 17, 2017 Sanford met up with “Tone, ” “Tone Tone, ” “Los, ” and “Carrie, ” and they talked about “robbing Milk Dud on Runyon” in the evening. Sanford later met his accomplices around 9:25 p.m. at a park across from his house, where they got into Los's car to drive over to Runyon Street. Sanford was armed with a “Mini 14, ” “Tone had a handgun, ” “Tone Tone had a chopper” (slang for AK-47), and “Carrie had a .45.” When the group got out of the car, they ran up to the house and began shooting from the outside. They then went inside, where Sanford “saw Milk Dud sitting in a chair . . . in front of the door, ” another man sitting on the couch, and a man and woman on the floor. The two on the floor appeared already to be dead, and the others in the room had been hit. Tone and Tone Tone searched the house, and Sanford heard shots from a back bedroom. Tone Tone then retrieved two black duffel bags from the basement. The group then shot Milk Dud and the man seated on the couch several more times and ran out of the house. Carrie and Sanford then ran away up the street, but someone across the street shot at them, and the pair returned fire. Sanford then ran home and went inside, changed his clothes and put his shoes in the washing machine. After a few minutes his mother came home and said that someone had been shot on Runyon Street.

         Numerous details of the written statement signed by Sanford later turned out to be false. The four accomplices named by Sanford in his statement were brought in during the police investigation, but all were cleared, and none were charged with the murders. Tolbert dep. at PageID.8860; Russell dep., ECF No. 170-21, PageID.9092. A gunshot residue test performed on Sanford's face and hands the night of the murders also came back negative. Laboratory Analysis dated Jan. 9, 2008, ECF No. 170-49, PageID.9732. And a search of the location where Sanford said the group hid the murder weapons turned up empty. The confession also incorporated details that later were established as false, such as that Valerie Glover was shot in a back bedroom, when she actually was shot in the living room, which Russell admitted was a conclusion he had drawn from his own observations of the crime scene. Russell dep. at PageID.9136-37. Also, when Glover initially was interviewed by police, she described the man who confronted her in the bedroom as 6'1” tall and aged 30-35; in 2007 Sanford was only 14 years old and 5'6” tall. Witness Statement of Valerie Glover dated Sept. 18, 2007, ECF No. 170-6, PageID.8712; Medical Intake Form dated Sept. 19, 2007, ECF No.170-6, PageID.8677.

         C. Smothers's Confession to the Runyon Street Murders

         In April 2008, Smothers was arrested on a warrant charging him with several other murders. Smothers aff. ¶ 54, ECF No. 170-8, PageID.8787. He was interrogated over the course of two days by Detroit police officer Ira Todd and Sergeant Gerald Williams. Williams was interested primarily in Smothers's part in the murder of Carl Thornton, but during that discussion Smothers recalled that he had used the same AK-47 to kill Thornton that he used in the Runyon Street assault. That recollection prompted Smothers to also confess to Sergeant Williams that he was the one who committed the Runyon Street killings. Id. ¶ 60, PageID.8789.

         At some point during his interrogation by Williams, Smothers was escorted on a bathroom break by defendant Russell. Smothers dep. at PageID.8395. While Smothers was using the bathroom, Russell said to him, “I heard you said that you did Runyon” - referring to the Runyon Street murders. Id. at 8397. Smothers responded, “Yes, I did say that, ” to which Russell replied that it was “impossible, ” because “We got the kid that did that.” Ibid. Smothers then said, “Impossible? Why do you say that? Because I did it.” Ibid. Smothers then walked past Russell and returned to the interrogation room, and he never spoke with Russell again about the Runyon Street murders. Id. at 8398. Smothers testified that, unlike the other murders to which he had confessed, he never was further interrogated about the Runyon street killings. Id. at 8399. Smothers confessed to his part in seven hits involving a total of 12 murders and three attempted murders during his April 19-20, 2008 interrogations; the four Runyon Street killings are the only ones for which he was never charged. Smothers aff. ¶¶ 63-64, PageID.8790.

         In 2007, defendant James Tolbert was the commander of the homicide department of the Detroit Police Department. James Tolbert dep., ECF No. 170-9, PageID.8802. Tolbert was informed about Smothers's confessions to the multiple homicides after his interrogation in April 2008, and he acknowledged that the failure fully to investigate Smothers's admitted involvement in the Runyon Street murders was an “extraordinary investigative lapse.” Id. at PageID.8847-51. Tolbert also testified that Russell was aware of Smothers's confession, and he admitted that, as the investigator in the Runyon Street case, Russell had an obligation fully to explore Smother's involvement. Id. at PageID.8855-56. Tolbert said that if there was an investigation of Smothers's involvement, it would have been documented in the homicide investigation file, and he conceded that he could not explain “why there's not a single document in the Runyon homicide file relating to an investigation into ...


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