DETROIT -- A judge refused Tuesday to throw out a teenager's guilty plea to four slayings in a Detroit drug den, despite the confession of a hit man in prison for other murders who said he never used the one-eyed, learning disabled boy as an accomplice.
The decision was a major setback for Davontae Sanford, who at age 14 took responsibility for the killings in his neighborhood and at age 15 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. His attorney has been trying to withdraw the plea for more than three years, especially after Vincent Smothers, an admitted hit man routinely hired by drug dealers, told police he was the gunman on Runyon Street.
Wayne County Judge Brian Sullivan noted in his ruling that a gun directly linked to the killings was found at a home used by a Smothers ally and said some portions of Smothers' statement "do reflect a detailed depiction of the scene of the crime and a plausible version of what happened."
Nonetheless, the judge said, "Smothers' statement does not automatically exonerate" Sanford, who is now 19.
Smothers, who is serving a 52-year prison sentence for eight other murders, recently told The Associated Press that he's willing to go to court to explain that Sanford had no role. But the judge ruled that Smothers had earlier opportunities to speak.
Sanford's appellate lawyer, Kim McGinnis, has said Sanford has a low IQ and was trying to please police when he walked up to investigators immediately after the killings. The teen's confession never was recorded, and McGinnis claims police fed Sanford details about the crime scene.
The prosecutor's office has consistently fought to uphold the conviction, although it concedes Smothers probably had a role. He never has been charged.
"There was insufficient evidence to support the withdrawal of Sanford's guilty plea that took place while the trial was in progress. We are very pleased with Judge Sullivan's decision denying his motion," spokeswoman Maria Miller said Tuesday.
McGinnis said an appeal is planned.
"It's a shame that an innocent kid has to stay in prison longer," she said. "It's a shame that Judge Sullivan would not permit testimony from the true perpetrator who wants to exonerate an innocent person."
The judge cited other issues in his 30-page decision. He said a retired Detroit homicide investigator's insistence that he was with Sanford at the time of the killings was false, based on cellphone records. William Rice knew the boy because he was in a relationship with Sanford's aunt.
"Taken as a whole, such discrepancies do not lead to a conclusion that the defendant is innocent, under the clear and convincing evidence standard," Sullivan said.
Sanford is not eligible for parole until 2046. He's housed in a maximum-security prison in Ionia County after logging more than 100 misconducts since 2008, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Smothers, 30, is housed at another prison. He was arrested in 2008 and quickly confessed to a series of murders, including the execution-style shooting of a Detroit officer's estranged wife for $50. He says he was paid $60,000 as a hit man over a two-year period. He eventually pleaded guilty to eight killings.
"I understand what prison life is like; it's miserable. To be here and be innocent – I don't know what it's like," Smothers recently told the AP, referring to Sanford. "He's a kid, and I hate for him to do the kind of time they're giving him."