Damning the Disabled (or, What Process Is Due?)

[previously posted at Ordinary Times.] Davonte Sanford claims he’s innocent of the murders of four people committed five years ago. A former hit man has apparently claimed responsibility for the killings, told police where the gun could be found, and had gunshot powder on his pants that linked him to the crime. The hit man supposedly is willing to testify on Sanford’s behalf, but previously refused to do so when given the opportunity. He released his lawyer from client privilege, and she was willing to testify, but was blocked by the prosector’s objections. The prosectors are confident they got the right guy, so what’s the point of introducing new evidence and testimony?

As reported by the Detroit News,

Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Chambers argued in a brief filed Tuesday that “more should be considered than simply a claim of innocence in support of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea. Another consideration, and an important one, is whether the guilty plea was voluntary.”

Good point, so let’s consider the voluntariness of that guilty plea. At the time of the murders, Davontae Sanford was 14 years old. Davontae Sanford is developmentally disabled, and was a special education student. Davontae Sanford was alone in the police interrogation room whe hecoked guilty, with neither a defense attorney nor even a parent by his side.

Voluntary? Really?

As noted by the Michigan Bar Association, peope with developmental disabilities “are often overwhelmed by police presence” and may “‘confess’ even though they are innocent.”

Smith, et al, in the Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities journal (2008), note that developmentally disabled persons are particularly likely to be naive, gullible and acquiesent, as well as havng a desire to please. They also have difficulty with short-term memory, making them subject to confusion. All this is a recipe for manipulation.

The problem with interrogation arises in that many tactics are particularly disadvantageous to persons with intellectual disabilities for a number of reasons. First, many persons with disabilities have been taught that police officers are to be respected and obeyed…

[The] pattern of control involved in interrogation is a particular concern for a person with a D/ID because of the increased likelihood of an individual being susceptible to suggestibility.

Gullibility is a significant issue when discussing interrogation and arrest and it provides a foundation for social vulnerability that Greenspan (2006a, 2006b) argues is a universal trait in mental retardation. Consistent with this premise, Petersilia (2000b) noted the difficulty that some persons faced when critically responding to the greeting by an authority figure who says, “I am your friend, I am here to help you” (p. 24). She reported on a study by Reynolds (1998) in which persons with disabilities were asked about their perceptions in such situations. Sixty-eight percent of the sample felt that they would be protected. Additionally, 58% said that they would talk to the police before talking to an attorney.

There is evidence to support these effects in criminal prosections, as noted by Smith, et al.

Perske (2000, 2005, 2006a) has focused on the fact that numerous individuals with mental retardation have been documented to have confessed to serious crimes that they did not commit. Perske (2006) provided data on 41 persons with intellectual disabilities who have been legally exonerated in cases to which they had previously confessed guilt.

As much as I am bothered by the prosecutor’s unwillingness to let new evidence be heard, my real outrage is at the undue process that brought Davontae Sanford to this point. Obviously I have no idea whether he’s guilty or innocent, but his guilt or innocence is irrelevant to the legitimacy of the process.

The rule should be simple and clear: the confession of a developmentally disabled person must be prejudicially assumed to be involuntary if given in the absence of legal counsel.

The developmentally disabled bear a special burden in our society, being the only group that cannot effectively organize to promote their own interests. More than any other group they are overwhelmimgly reliant on we who differ from them. This case makes my blood boil, because some of us, some who have above average mental competence, are doing their damndest to abuse Davontae Sanford’s reliance on them.

[Photo credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press]

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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2 Responses to Damning the Disabled (or, What Process Is Due?)

  1. Matty says:

    I’d say we should be suspicious of any confession made without counsel present. Even if the suspect has above average mental abilities and the interegator is scrupulously fair there is still a power difference that puts the burden of proof on those who claim any statement is voluntary.

  2. lancifer666 says:


    Indeed, there are a shocking number of cases where it later turns out that either the police coerced the confession out of the suspect or that the suspect willingly, for a variety of reasons, gave a false confession.

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