Mimesis Law
21 November 2019

A Diagram Of Perjury: Former Detroit Officer James Tolbert Lied

June 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — It’s no secret that juveniles confess to crimes they didn’t commit. It’s no secret that accused facing trials plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. It’s also no secret that some cops testily or just plain lie, to enhance their cases. James Tolbert, the former Flint police chief and former Detroit deputy chief, is now under investigation for his role in the investigation and confession that led to Davontae Sanford’s conviction and incarceration nearly nine years ago.

Sanford, then age 14, was in his pajamas near a crime scene outside a drug house when police found him in 2007. A quadruple murder had occurred inside the house. After two days of interrogation, police announced Sanford had confessed. Former Detroit officer James Tolbert played a significant role in the interrogation, as he claimed Sanford not only confessed, but also drew a diagram of the crime scene on a blank piece of paper.

Sanford’s location near the crime scene, his confession, his diagram, and even some gunshot residue on his clothes was all Tolbert and the prosecution team needed. In fact, it was all Sanford’s attorney needed. A quadruple murder and a confession are hard to walk away from. Sanford’s attorney, Robert Slameka, convinced him to enter a plea and avoid the trial, which had just begun. At just 14, Sanford pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 37-to-90 years confinement. His first opportunity for parole would come at age 53.

Despite the fact that a hit man confessed to the murders just two weeks after Sanford was sentenced, it would take almost nine years before the wrongful conviction was set aside. The hit man, Vincent Smothers, confessed in 2008 to 12 murders. He was convicted of eight, but the remaining four were not charged because Sanford had also confessed to those.

Based in part on the hit man’s confession, the murders to which Sanford was convicted were reinvestigated by the Michigan State Police. It took them almost a year to complete their investigation. What they found was sad but not unheard of: there were major gaps in Sanford’s confession. Gaps such as:

[Sanford’s confession claimed] he used a mini-14 rifle in the shooting — even though no shell casings from the scene matched that type of gun and a murder weapon was never found.

Additionally, investigators learned it was Officer Tolbert who drew the scene diagram, rather than Sanford. According to Sanford’s pro bono attorney Heidi Naasko:

Tolbert had in earlier testimony said that [Sanford] had drawn the diagram of the house where the murder took place, but during the police investigation, he changed his story and said, ‘No, I drew the house.’ It was a direct contradiction to his testimony on the record.

Wayne County prosecutors confirmed this key evidence undermined Tolbert’s credibility in the case and lead to Sanford’s conviction being vacated and all charges dismissed.

So, why would Sanford have confessed? Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. If we are left with Tolbert’s word, perhaps there was no confession at all; just like Sanford didn’t draw the scene. But if there was an actual confession, what led Sanford to that confession?

One of the biases inherent in police work, like many other fields, comes from tunnel vision. Officers can and do make assumptions based on their observations and then strive to validate those assumptions. Finding Sanford near the scene while looking for witnesses, officers clearly had reason to interview Sanford and see if he knew more. So they took him in to the station.

Perhaps Sanford, like many juveniles, didn’t understand his Miranda rights. After all, his defenders noted he was developmentally impaired and blind in one eye, and was known for telling elaborate tales. Perhaps, like many young and developmentally impaired people, he was simply more prone to suggestion. Fed the right facts, he may very well have parroted them back in a confession to please authorities, thinking he may go home. After two days of interrogations, a confession was had, but Sanford didn’t get to go home.

Interestingly, not much is being reported about Tolbert’s role, other than his claiming Sanford drew a diagram which he had not. Hopefully, this is due to the investigation into Tolbert’s actions. As of June 10, 2016, the prosecutor’s office told ABC News that they currently have a warrant for Tolbert under review, but no decision regarding charges had been made.

Tolbert lied. It’s that plain and simple. And, Sanford spent years in prison; years Sanford will never get back. Yes, Sanford’s attorney also bears responsibility for those years as well, as he never attempted to challenge the confession or other evidence. His lawyer may be been ineffective, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tolbert lied and should be prosecuted for his perjury. It’s time to stop the perjury pass for officers.

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  • Robert Slameka: To Please A Judge, Plead ‘Em
    20 June 2016 at 9:29 am - Reply

    […] — Nearly nine years ago, Davontae Sanford’s lawyer, Robert Slameka, convinced the 14-year-old to plead guilty to four drug house murders he didn’t commit. Turns out helping convict the innocent was the least […]