Officers Involved In Notorious Wrongful Conviction Aren’t On Prosecutor’s Do-Not-Call List
A state investigation found that Detroit police officers fabricated evidence that helped convict a 14-year-old boy. A judge threw out his conviction after he spent nine years in prison, but the officers are still on the job and haven’t been flagged as unreliable to testify in court.
When Davontae Sanford was 14, two Detroit police officers coerced him into confessing to murders he didn’t commit and fabricated evidence that helped convict him. In 2016, after Sanford served nine years in prison, a judge dropped the charges at prosecutors’ request, after a state police investigation uncovered the officers’ misconduct.
Sanford’s mother, Taminko Sanford-Tilmon, said she and her son are still suffering from his years of incarceration. He often calls her in the middle of the night, she said, and they both fear that Detroit police will do the same thing again. She said they’re frustrated that the Wayne County prosecutor’s office hasn’t apologized to her family and that Lt. Michael Russell and former police commander James Tolbert, the officers whose misconduct put him behind bars, remain on the job.
That frustration grew more intense in July when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy released a list of 35 police officers who have committed crimes or misconduct on the job. The list, known as a Brady list or a do-not-call list, has become a popular tool of progressive prosecutors in recent years to publicly flag for jurors the names of officers whose testimony should not be trusted in court. These prosecutors often avoid relying on evidence from officers on the list because it is likely to be challenged in court.
But Russell and Tolbert are not on Worthy’s list.
“I was furious. I didn’t understand why their names weren’t on this list,” Sanford-Tilmon told The Appeal. “We had two officers that robbed my son of nine years. Childhood, prom, graduation, my grandmother’s death, and different things. I was disappointed and frustrated.”
She said that, had the officers been included, it would have given her a small sense of justice, especially considering how Worthy had initially resisted reviewing Sanford’s conviction and continued to justify his sentence after his exoneration.
“It would have given me and my son closure,” she said. “We would have been like, ‘Oh, OK. Now she’s doing right. Maybe we might not need an apology. Maybe this is her way of apologizing because they named them.’ But nothing.”
A majority of the officers on Worthy’s do-not-call list are from the Detroit Police Department, and all but two of the list’s Detroit officers have retired, resigned, or are incarcerated for criminal offenses. The two who are still serving with the police department are assigned to non-operational duties, the department told the Detroit Free Press.
Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told The Appeal that when they’re done right, do-not-call lists can be useful for prosecutors trying to rein in police misconduct.
“They can be an effective deterrent for police accountability, they can break the logjam of being unable to remove problematic police, but they do have to be done correctly,” he said. “They have to encompass not just all of the police who have been caught doing inappropriate things … they have to accurately contain exactly what the police officer did and every instance of it.”
In an email to The Appeal about the omission of the officers who framed Sanford, Worthy said her office will be reviewing the list and releasing an updated one in the fall. She also said the retired and incarcerated officers were included on the list because “these officers could still be called in court to testify in trials, and various post-conviction hearings where they are subpoenaed to give sworn testimony.”
Worthy’s list may be incomplete because she is relying on police departments themselves to flag officers who meet criteria for inclusion: fraud, theft, larceny, embezzlement, bribery, dishonest or false statements, obstruction of justice, misconduct in office, or federal crimes. She has been asking local police departments, the county sheriffs, and federal agencies to provide her with lists of such officers since October, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“The problem is the police are policing the police,” said Nick Buckingham, campaign director for Michigan Liberation. “This is like me putting my friend on a bad kids list. I’m not going to do it. What police officer or what police department wants to identify officers that are currently working there to be on the list?”
In other jurisdictions, prosecutors have assembled groups within their own offices to determine who belongs on a do-not-call list. Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Florida has convened a Brady committee, made up of the director of conviction integrity, the chief investigator, two felony bureau chiefs and the chief assistant state attorney, to determine whose names should be on the list.
Worthy told The Appeal that her prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the public can also identify officers for her office to investigate.
Unions like the Police Officers Association of Michigan say that public do-not-call lists are unnecessary and that judging officers should be left to the courts. Prosecutors usually counter by saying that judicial proceedings take too long and there should be other ways to hold officers accountable.
Critics suspected Worthy’s decision to release the list was political, as it was released shortly before her first ever competitive primary. On Aug. 4, Worthy faced progressive Democrat Victoria Burton-Harris, who vowed to use the prosecutor’s office to help curb police misconduct. Though Worthy ultimately won with 62 percent of the vote, the electoral challenge forced her to campaign to the left of how she has acted as prosecutor.
“We definitely see it as being an election push to release this list and generate a lot of conversation around it,” Buckingham said, explaining that people who do not fully understand the issue have been touting the list as a great step from Worthy.
Sanford-Tilmon agreed. “Did the list only come out because it was election time and you were forced to put it out there for more votes?” she asked.
Worthy pushed back on that allegation, saying that she started working on the list last year, before she had a primary challenger.
“Trials have been postponed because of the pandemic,” she said. “Since the courts have indicated that they would be doing trials again in late August it seemed like the appropriate time to release the list.”
But criminal justice reform advocates say Worthy has done herself a disservice by releasing such a flawed 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 if 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.”