Detroit Man Wrongfully Imprisoned at Age 15 Freed

ABC News(DETROIT) -- When Davontae Sanford was 15, he was sentenced to 37-90 years in prison for four killings.

On Thursday, he walked away a free man at the age of 23, cleared of crimes he did not commit.

When Sanford was just 14, he pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree homicide on the advice of a now-suspended attorney.

Sanford said he'd gotten letters from people all over the U.S., motivating him while he was in prison and encouraging him to stay positive. He shared some advice for other young men who may be wrongly incarcerated.

"Keep fighting. Don't give up. You gotta stay strong mentally, spiritually, emotionally," Sanford said. "If you know you in prison for something you didn't do, just don't roll over. ... Don't give in. ... I was almost to that breaking point, you know, many times. ... I just stayed positive."

Surrounded by family, friends, his lawyer and his mother, Sanford said Thursday that his first meal on his first full day out of prison had been Chinese food, a craving he'd had for four years.

"First meal was sesame-seed chicken, some sweet-and-sour chicken, egg rolls and shrimp fried rice," he said. "I told my Mama, like, 'You'd be wasting your time cooking ... 'cause I'm not gonna eat it."

According to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, the murder convictions were vacated by a judge Wednesday and all charges against Sanford were dropped.

Heidi A. Naasko, a pro bono attorney for Sanford, told ABC News on Wednesday that a hit man, Vincent Smothers, had confessed to 12 murders two weeks after Sanford was sentenced in 2008.

Smothers was convicted of eight of the murders he confessed to, "but the remaining four he was not charged with because those were the murders that Davontae had confessed to," Naasko said. "A year ago, the Michigan State Police did a reinvestigation of the case. It was very thorough. It took a year to do."

The new investigation into the murders revealed major gaps in Sanford's confession. Authorities also uncovered that a former detective with the Detroit Police Department, and not Sanford, had drawn a diagram of the crime scene during police questioning.

Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, however, defended the handling of the case Thursday, saying, "We had a reason, a good reason to charge" Sanford.

Sanford said he'd like to eventually share his story with at-risk youth and bring awareness to the circumstances facing juveniles in the criminal justice system.

"You're sending us to a place where there's no programs, violence, you know, mental health treatment is terrible," he said. "What do you expect after 30 years [of incarceration]? What type of man you think you getting ... once you release him?"

For now, though, Sanford told ABC News Thursday that he was not bitter and that he was simply looking forward to attending Detroit Tigers games and eating pretzels as well as learning how to drive.

"I'm good. I'm home. I'm home now," he said. "I was angry when I was in but I'm home now so I'm not angry anymore."

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