When Prosecutors Are 'Innocence Deniers'

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 13, 2018 4:12 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kym Worthy is known mainly for her work on the backlog of rape kits. She's been lead prosecutor in Wayne County for more than 13 years. And after we taped our interview with her, Lara Bazelon published a piece in Slate magazine that is critical of Kym Worthy's record on the exoneration of wrongful convictions. Worthy is one of a group of prosecutors Lara Bazelon describes as, quote, "innocence deniers." She joins us now from San Francisco.

Thanks so much for being with us.

LARA BAZELON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: These aren't prosecutors that are just naturally reluctant to overturn convictions they've won but actively opposing exoneration. What makes someone an innocence denier, in your judgment?

BAZELON: They have to be extreme. So they don't simply oppose a wrongful conviction claim - because some claims are bogus or murky and they have to be investigated. Instead, when confronted with overwhelming evidence that the person is innocent, they refuse to let go of the conviction, and they will fight for years through the appellate courts. They will publicly declare their belief that the person is guilty.

SIMON: Let's talk about one case in particular because you spent some time speaking with Kym Worthy about a couple of cases. Let's ask about Davontae Sanford's case. Very briefly, what happened?

BAZELON: What happened was there was this terrible murder in a house on Runyon Street. It was called the Runyon Street murders. Four people were killed. And the police set their sights on a 14-year-old named Davontae Sanford. He was young. He was alone. He was developmentally disabled.

And they got him to admit to what he said was, quote, "something" with his understanding that he would be let go. He ended up signing a confession to the murders. He was indicted. His attorney, who was guilty of all sorts of misconduct, ended up, in the middle of trial, having Davontae plead guilty to the four murders and get an extremely long sentence.

Eighteen days after he pled guilty - or maybe 16 days - the actual killer, a guy named Vincent Smothers, confessed to the Detroit Police that he had carried out these four murders and eight other murders at the behest of a hitman. So the Detroit Police, even though they had this evidence, didn't free Davontae Sanford. And at some point, the evidence leaked out. I think that was in 2009. And at that point, he started fighting to be released and was opposed at every turn by Prosecutor Worthy.

SIMON: We contacted Prosecutor Worthy, who didn't come in for another interview. But she - there is this statement. And let me read it.

(Reading) It should be pointed out that the Runyon Street homicides remain under active investigation. This office dismissed the case against Sanford because we were unable to retry the case. This dismissal is not the same as exoneration. It must be emphasized that Vincent Smothers has had several opportunities to testify under oath to exonerate Sanford but each time has refused.

So how do you respond to that?

BAZELON: It's hard to know what to make of that statement. My first response is that the attorney general - so the top prosecutor of the state of Michigan - has found that Davontae Sanford is innocent and has accepted that fact and agreed to award him over $400,000 in compensation. Vincent Smothers has declared that he is guilty and has said in a sworn affidavit that Davontae Sanford had nothing to do with it. My understanding is that none of the people to whom Smothers pointed have been prosecuted or indeed will be prosecuted by Kym Worthy.

SIMON: Every now and then over the years, I've talked to prosecutors about exoneration cases. And they often say, look, they were legally convicted by a jury. The conviction was upheld on appeal. You can't make the legal system work if it's vulnerable to people showing up years after the fact sometimes, changing their testimony or even confessing - because that can be problematic.

BAZELON: It's true that our system does prize this idea of finality, which is 12 people came back and convicted, and then an appellate court upheld it, and then another appellate court upheld that. And we should just stop letting people come back and get second and third bites at the apple. But it's also true that people confess falsely. And some trials are fundamentally unfair because, for example, prosecutors don't turn over all the evidence, and some of it tends to indicate the person didn't do it.

And in those cases, when it becomes obvious that any or all of these things have happened, there has to be some kind of a recourse. And our legal system does provide that recourse, provided that prosecutors don't stand in the way.

SIMON: Recognizing there might be more than one answer to this, why would a prosecutor oppose exoneration?

BAZELON: People think, who've studied it, that it's a combination sometimes of tunnel vision and confirmation bias that you basically look at the new evidence and you discard it as being inconsistent with what you already believe to be true. And then I also think that there's a psychological price that's high, which is admitting to a devastating error. Even if it was an error made by one's predecessor, it's still conceding that the justice system failed in a way that is so profound and stole a huge part of someone else's life. And I think facing up to that consequence is very painful, and people will do anything they can to turn away from it.

SIMON: Laura Bazelon, associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and contributing writer for Slate - thanks so much.

BAZELON: Thank you so much for having me.

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