United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
CORRECTED OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS'
MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
M. LAWSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Court issues this corrected opinion and order to correct
certain non-substantive errors in the original.
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.
Facts and Proceedings
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.
Murders on Runyon Street
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
recalled that he encountered Russell outside, on a street
near his home, early in the morning of September 18, 2007,
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.
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
later interviewed Sanford at police headquarters for around
three or four hours, starting at 4:00 a.m. on September 18,
2007. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Smothers's Confession to the Runyon Street Murders
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.
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.
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 ...