In the October 15 issue of The New Yorker, Nadya Labi’s “The Hit Man’s Tale” (see the abstract here) tells the story of Vincent Smothers, a killer for hire who plied his trade in Detroit. It is by turns insightful, horrifying, and fascinating. And by the end, it turns into another story: how another man confessed to the murder of several people and remains in prison for the crime — even though Smothers says he committed it.
As is true with many career criminals, Smothers was finally caught, and he confessed to nine homicides, including one involving multiple killings on Runyon Street. He gave details. His interrogator believed he was telling the truth, and his statement checked out — all except for one case: the killing on Runyon Street. Hearing that he had confessed to the Runyon Street killings, a police officer told Smothers, “That’s impossible. We got the guy…A kid confessed.” It seems that, seven months earlier, a young man named Davontae Sanford had told the police he had committed those crimes. Despite inconsistencies between his confession (which he changed multiple times) and the details of the crime, Sanford was convicted.
Interview for the article, Steven Drizin of Northwestern School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, said Sanford’s youth and naivete made him a sitting duck. First, he was a minor, and young people are uniquely vulnerable to pressure in interrogations. Second, both the judge in his case and his own lawyer told him he should take a plea offer instead of contesting the case at trial. Sanford did, and remains incarcerated today — despite Smothers having admitted to the crime himself. And the police fed Sanford details of the crime, which he repeated in his confession, making his words more credible.
The article makes fascinating reading, not least because it morphs from the story of the hit man into the story of a false confession. And it illustrates the unique power of a confession. Even without much in the way of other evidence, and with the confession of a man who authorities admit is a contract killer, little may change for Sanford.