- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

DETROIT (AP) - A judge reluctantly dismissed all charges Tuesday and closed a murder case against a young Detroit man who went to prison as a teen for four slayings that were eventually linked to a professional hit man.

Davontae Sanford was released from prison in June when Wayne County Judge Brian Sullivan threw out a second-degree murder conviction at the request of the prosecutor. But the 23-year-old, who was locked up for eight years, wasn’t completely in the clear until the charges were formally dropped.

“The case is over,” said David Moran of the University of Michigan law school’s Innocence Clinic, a key member of the legal team. “Davontae Sanford has been exonerated. … I hope the four people who were savagely murdered on Runyon Street will get justice.”

Sanford didn’t know about Sullivan’s final order until informed by The Associated Press. “Wow!” he said before ending the conversation to take a call from his lawyer.

In 2008, a 15-year-old Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the middle of trial, a decision that Moran blamed on a woeful defense attorney. Sullivan sentenced him to at least 39 years in prison.

Efforts to get Sanford out of prison gained momentum in 2015 when law schools at Michigan and Northwestern University took up his cause with a point-by-point rebuttal. The cornerstone of their challenge: a detail-rich affidavit by hit man Vincent Smothers, who explained how he and an accomplice killed four people in a drug house, including critical information about the guns.

Smothers gave the same account to state police. But county prosecutor Kym Worthy didn’t back off the Sanford conviction because of Smothers - at least not publicly.

Instead, she said the case was spoiled because state police found problems with authorship of a critical sketch of the crime scene, which was made during Sanford’s interrogation by Detroit police. She called the sketch a “major building block.”

Sullivan said he wouldn’t “second-guess” the about-face by Worthy. But in a seven-page order dismissing the case against Sanford, he said he read the recent state police report and found it “produced more unanswered questions and greater confusion.”

“Humanitarianism is not the exclusive invocation of only one side,” the judge said. “Truth is not defined by who speaks first, the loudest or repeats it most often. Rather, it is generally that which corresponds to the facts.”

Taminko Sanford-Tilmon referenced her son’s June 8 release from prison in responding to news that the case now is over: “I’m overwhelmed. This is my best day ever - again.”

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, Maria Miller, said there will be no immediate decision on whether to charge Smothers, who is in prison for eight other killings, including the fatal shooting of a police officer’s estranged wife.

Moran said Sanford is the 13th person to be exonerated by the Innocence Clinic since 2009.

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Follow Ed White at https://twitter.com/edwhiteap

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