Davontae Sanford was only 14 years old when he was arrested for a string of murders in Michigan. But after almost nine years in prison, his conviction was overturned when a state investigation found that the real killer had later confessed to Wayne County police and prosecutors.
Now 23, Sanford was reunited with his family last week in Detroit. But that tearful homecoming almost didn't happen, because of more than $2,000 in unpaid court fines and fees he amassed while in prison — including a bill for a public defender.
Two years ago, an NPR investigation looked at how impoverished people in U.S. court systems often end up having to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in court costs. It was a problem particularly in Michigan, where we found a 19-year-old man ordered to jail when he didn't pay the fine for catching a fish out of season; a homeless Iraq veteran who was jailed when he came to court with $35 instead of the $50 the judge ordered to pay; and another defendant who was billed for over $1,000 to help pay for the courthouse heat, lights, copy machines and even the employee fitness center.
Last week, Sanford's mother first got word that her son's conviction was about to be overturned and that he was coming home.
"The family's getting excited. Everybody is coming over here," Taminko Sanford says of that day. And then, she says: "We hit a bombshell."
The bombshell was those unpaid court fees.
"I'm saying to myself, I don't have this money. I can barely afford my bills. How am I going to pay this money to get him out? I want him home. So it was like my back was against the wall."
The 2014 NPR investigative series "Guilty and Charged" included a nationwide survey of court fines and fees charged by states. One finding, in a survey with the Brennan Center for Justice, showed that in 43 states and the District of Columbia, judges are allowed, or required, to charge someone for a public defender. Sometimes it's a small application fee, which ranged from $10 to $400. But some states charge reimbursement fees for the lawyer that can add up to thousands of dollars.
Sanford was billed $1,500 for his public defender. And an additional $1,000 in general court costs — even though he was a teen in prison, with no income.
John Miller, a prosecutor in Lapeer County, Mich., explains that those costs popped up not on his original conviction but while he was in a youth detention center.
In 2009, "prison employees had responded to [Sanford's] cell because he had indicated he was going to make a noose out of some clothing ... that he had in his cell and hang himself," Miller says.
Guards in gas masks stormed into the cell, grabbed and handcuffed the despondent teen.
Sanford was charged with assault for kicking a corrections officer in the wrist and then spitting on another officer. He was assigned a public defender and took a plea deal for misdemeanor assault. The judge sentenced him to an additional two years in prison, but said the time could be erased if he paid the court fees totaling $2,500.
So even last week after it was determined that Sanford was innocent of the original murder charges in Wayne County, the sentence still stood in Lapeer County.
Miller says his office moved to expedite the issue. And Nick Holowka, the chief judge in Lapeer County who has the discretion to drop the fines and change the sentence, says he was willing to speed things up, too. But Holowka says he could only do that once Sanford's lawyers set up a hearing.
Valerie Newman, an attorney who helped overturn Sanford's convictions, says that was going to take days.
"I mean, I don't even really know how to articulate the absurdity of it," says Newman, of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office. "It's so much beyond comprehension."
While Sanford's attorneys and the judge were trying to figure out next steps, there was an unexpected solution.
"There was a very generous anonymous donor who knew about the case," says Newman. "Whose response was, 'I'm not going to let that happen. He's not going to spend one more second locked up than he already has. I'm going to pay it.' "
The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, confirms to NPR writing the check.
Prison officials had already been deducting money from Sanford's prison commissary account — the money his mother sent him so he could buy things like soap, shampoo and snacks and make phone calls home.
Of the $2,500 he'd been billed in Lapeer County, the bill was down to $2,145.
"I was in prison for a crime I didn't commit, so if anybody should be paying something, it should be them," Sanford says of the state of Michigan.
A check was hand delivered to the court, and Sanford was allowed to go home.
Sanford says now that he is home he has priorities. He wants to learn to drive, go back to school and get his GED.
"Get a job, eventually and you know, start becoming like, independent," he says.
Since the NPR series in 2014, states around the country have made reforms. In May, the Michigan Supreme Court issued new rules telling judges to stop making impoverished defendants stay in jail if they can't pay their court fines and fees.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've got an update now on an investigation that NPR carried out around two years ago. It put a spotlight on how, when impoverished people go to court, they often end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in court costs. It's a problem across the country, especially in Michigan. There, we found a 19-year-old who'd been ordered to jail after he didn't pay the fine for catching a fish out of season. But one of the strangest cases yet involves a man who spent time in prison for crimes it turns out he did not commit. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Davontae Sanford was only 14 when he was arrested for a string of murders. He was convicted. But it turned out he was innocent. After spending nearly 9 years in prison, Sanford, now 23, was released last week and reunited with his family in Detroit. The moment was captured by The Detroit News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Sobbing).
SHAPIRO: But that tearful reunion almost didn't happen. In prison, he was accused of assaulting guards, went back to court and, as a result, owed court fines and fees, including a bill for his public defender. Last week, Sanford's family got word that the original murder conviction was about to be overturned and he was coming home.
TAMINKO SANFORD: The family getting excited. Everybody is coming over here. We hit a bombshell.
SHAPIRO: That's Davontae's mother, Taminko Sanford. The bombshell was those unpaid court fees.
SANFORD: I'm saying to myself, I don't have this money. I can barely afford my bills. How is I'm going to pay this money to get him out? I want him home.
SHAPIRO: In 2014, NPR did a nationwide survey. We found in 43 states, judges are allowed or required to charge someone for a public defender. In Michigan, Davontae Sanford was billed $1,500 for his public defender and another $1,000 in general court costs, even though he was a teen in prison with no income. Those costs popped up, not on his original conviction, but on something that happened later in a youth detention center. John Miller, a prosecutor in Lapeer County, Mich., explains.
JOHN MILLER: Prison employees had responded to his cell because he had indicated that he was going to make a noose out of some clothing, I think, that he had in his cell and hang himself.
SHAPIRO: Guards in gas masks stormed into the cell, grabbed and handcuffed him. Sanford ended up charged with assault for kicking one corrections officer in the wrist and spitting on another. He got an additional two-year sentence that could be erased if he paid those court fines.
So even after it was determined that Sanford was innocent of the original murder charges, the sentence still stood on the assault charges. The chief judge in that county court has the discretion to drop the fines or change the sentence. And he says he was willing to speed things up, but that Sanford's lawyers needed to set up a hearing. The attorney who helped overturn Sanford's conviction, Valerie Newman with the State Appellate Defender's Office, says that was going to take days.
VALERIE NEWMAN: I mean, I really don't even know how to articulate the absurdity of it. I mean, it's so much beyond comprehension.
SHAPIRO: Then, there was an unexpected solution.
NEWMAN: A very generous anonymous donor...
SHAPIRO: Another lawyer who'd followed the case wrote a check. And Davontae Sanford came home. Since the NPR series in 2014, states around the country have made reforms. And in Michigan last month, the state supreme court issued new rules, telling judges to stop making impoverished defendants stay in jail if they can't pay their court fines and fees. But let's give the last word to Davontae Sanford.
DAVONTAE SANFORD: I was in prison for a crime I didn't commit. So if anybody should be paying something, it should be them, I think.
SHAPIRO: He's got his priorities now. He wants to learn to drive, go back to school and get his GED.
SANFORD: Get a job eventually, you know, and start becoming, like, independent.
SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.