Every year, advocacy organizations like the Innocence Project uncover an increasing number of wrongful convictions and work tirelessly to free those who have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Although it would be comforting to believe that these convictions were the result of honest mistakes that could not have been foreseen, it often turns out that prosecutors acted irresponsibly and maliciously.
As just one example, consider the case of a young Michigan man named Davontae Sanford, who was convicted in 2008 of four homicides. He was just 14 years old. Earlier this month, after years of legal struggle, a judge vacated his convictions and Mr. Sanford was set free.
It now seems as though Mr. Sanford’s wrongful conviction and subsequent time behind bars occurred because of a combination of prosecutorial indifference (bordering on misconduct) and ineffective assistance of counsel. In 2007, four people were gunned down in what police believed was a drug-related killing. Witnesses saw two suspects leaving the scene. Mr. Sanford did not match the description of either of the men.
Sanford was picked up “wandering the streets” a short time after the killings. When questioned, he could not describe what had occurred at the crime scene (because he had not been there). Nonetheless, after hours of questioning, the 14-year-old falsely admitted to the murders. Hours later, he recanted his testimony, claiming he had been pressured into saying what he said.
Sanford’s lawyer never filed motions to suppress the young man’s testimony. Instead, he advised Sanford to plead guilty, which Sanford then did. He was given a sentence of up to 90 years in prison.
Just two weeks after sentencing, a hit man confessed to police that he had committed the four murders for which Davontae was convicted. He further said that Davontae had no involvement whatsoever. Yet prosecutors never charged the hit man with the murders. Even after eventually reopening the investigation, it would take almost eight years to free Mr. Sanford.
We should be able to take freedom for granted. But in the criminal justice system, innocence alone is not necessarily enough to guarantee that you will keep your freedom. If you have been charged with or suspected of a crime, it is important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney by your side from the very beginning.