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Are There More Davontae Sanfords? The Mark Craighead Story

In the aftermath of twenty-three-year-old Davontae Sanford’s release from prison after a 2007 wrongful conviction, questions regarding the Detroit Police Department’s procedures have been swarming. A question that continues to be asked is if there are more Davontae Sanfords out there? One case with overwhelming evidence for another individual’s innocence is that of Mark Craighead. I recently had an opportunity to interview Mark and discuss the details of his case.

The Crime
In 1997, Chole Pruett was murdered in Detroit, Michigan. His body was found in his home the evening of June 27th and his truck was found burning in a separate location. As part of the investigation, police questioned a close friend—Mark Craighead. Mark told investigators that he was working overnight when Pruett was murdered. They also interviewed craighead2approximately twenty-five witnesses in total—none of which implicated Mark, but instead named three other suspects. Detectives were told one of those named suspects had threatened Pruett not long before the murder. No one is certain whether this lead was investigated further, but they never zeroed in on a suspect and Mark heard nothing more until three years later. In June 2000, Mark returned home from working a full day at his new job at Chrysler and found detectives on his front porch. He was asked to come down to the station for further questioning regarding the Pruett murder. Mark asked if he could come down later that evening or the following day and he was told that they could not wait. The detectives threatened to call for a paddy wagon if he did not go down to the station with them, so he reluctantly went with them to avoid any issues.

The Confession
Down at the police station, Mark was questioned for hours, maintaining his innocence. “I told them I wanted to go home, but they said I couldn’t go.” He was then left in a room by himself that he described as “deplorable.” He was in shorts and a t-shirt, so he was uncomfortably cold. They didn’t offer him anything—no food, nothing. The phone didn’t work either and he could not get any sleep. He said, “They did everything to break down my spirit.” Mark says that around 2:30 a.m., he was taken in for a polygraph and immediately told he failed. Around 11:00 the following morning, Detective Barbara Simon suggested a narrative of the murder: Pruett and Craighead got into an argument, Pruett pulled out a gun, and during a struggle the gun went off and Pruett was fatally shot. Mark did not provide any of these details to her. Mark indicates that during that time, Detective Simon told him many things to persuade him to sign the paper, such as, “You’ll never see the light of day again” and “Your kids will be calling someone else daddy and your wife will have a new husband.” Mark was even told that if he signed the confession, he could just go home and fight it. He was less than two weeks away from having his initial ninety days in at Chrysler, so the pressure to get out of there and take care of his family was overwhelming. The way that Mark understood the statement was not that he shot Pruett, but that a gun went off in a scuffle and Pruett was shot. Eventually he signed the paper believing that he was going home and his alibi would exonerate him. No part of his interrogation was recorded. He was then charged with first degree murder and booked in the county jail. Mark said, “When they took me down to the police station that day on my porch, it was the last day I saw sunlight.”

Mark’s case went to trial in 2002 and he had no idea how the case had gotten that far considering that he did have an alibi. At the time of the murder, Mark was working the night shift at Sam’s Club and standard procedure was that all employees were locked in overnight—a safety precaution—and only a manager could let someone out with a code. His boss was subpoenaed and due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, his paper timecard was destroyed in a sprinkler accident. His boss could only testify that Mark was a good employee, always came in when scheduled, and that his normal schedule was the overnight shift Tuesday through Saturday. There was no clear evidence to corroborate his story and since it was over four years earlier that the crime had occurred, his boss could not say with any amount of certainty that Mark was in fact working the night of the murder. Further, no DNA was found at the crime scene or from the truck. When asked about that, Mark said, “I’ve not had a ticket. I’ve never done a crime before, never done anything. I was a normal citizen. For a person like me to come in and do a perfect murder, that’s unheard of. There were no fingerprints. There was no evidence in that place at all.” This missing evidence for his innocence coupled with his false confession led to a conviction of manslaughter. He was sentenced on August 5, 2002 to 40 months to 15 years with a consecutive sentence of 24 months for a felony firearm.

Mark’s case was appealed and it was argued that his fourth amendment rights were violated since he was arrested without a warrant and without probable cause, and further, that his confession should have been suppressed because of this violation. The court disagreed and his appeal was denied. Eventually the Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC) at the University of Michigan Law School took over and other appeals were made on his behalf. At this point, Mark was urged to take another polygraph test, which he did and passed, answering that he did not fatally injure Pruett and that he was not there when Pruett was shot. He was also told by the administrator of the test that it is impossible to have immediate results from a polygraph, so there was no way that he could have been truthfully told he failed the polygraph administered during his interrogation. Unfortunately, the practice of lying to a suspect in order to get a confession is entirely permitted for detectives.

Mark remained in prison for 7 years and was released on parole in 2009. After his release, he took yet another polygraph where he was asked similar questions and passed again. On appeal in 2010, attorneys for the MIC, Dave Moran and Bridget McCormack—now a Michigan Supreme Court Justice—presented phone records from the night of the murder. Calls were made from the Sam’s Club where Mark was employed to his brother and a close friend of his—one call was made at the very time the murder occurred. The attorneys presented affidavits from both of the recipients of those calls. Each affidavit confirmed that the phone number was the individual’s in question, that they often received calls from Mark while he was at work, and that they did not know any other person working at that Sam’s Club location. The attorneys argued that these newly discovered records would have led to a different trial outcome and as such that Mark was afforded a new trial. Judge Vera Massey Jones denied the appeal stating that the phone records didn’t prove anything other than that those calls were made—not who made them—and therefore the new evidence would not have changed the outcome of the case. This decision was appealed in December 2010. Since then, the MIC assisted Mark in requesting a pardon from Governor Snyder; however, this request was denied.

False Confessions
There is one glaring flaw with Mark’s signed confession: the signed statement does not match the facts of the case. According to the confession, the argument led to one fatal shot being fired; however, Mark was later told that Pruett was shot execution style three or four times according to the police report.

Many find it unfathomable that a person would confess to a crime they did not commit; however, false confessions occurred in over 25% of DNA exonerations in two different studies. See articles. Research has found that individuals will confess for a variety of reasons including: “duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence, the actual infliction of harm, the threat of a harsh sentence, [and] misunderstanding the situation.” See source. Saul Kassin, a Professor of Psychology at John Jay College and an expert in the study of false confessions, explains that unfortunately, once a false confession is out there, it is impossible to convince a jury that it isn’t the truth. In addition, to magnify the tragedy of a false confession, studies show that 73% of juries will vote to convict even when the confession has been retracted by defendants and contradicted by physical evidence. (Our site has an excellent overview with 60 Minute and Frontline videos of what has become a sub-specialty in psychology and sociology: false confessions.) Mark, in all the years of maintaining his innocence, has always said that he felt like he had to sign that confession. He needed to get home to support his family and the conditions of the police station were adding to his need to urgently leave.

In conclusion, Mark spent 7 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He is now a convicted felon and has not found work since his release in 2009. He was asked what one message he would like to get out and he said, “Davontae Sanford is not an isolated incident. Davontae’s release proves that there are innocent people sitting in prison right now. I’ve been out there telling everybody to look at my evidence. There’s not one piece of evidence that they’ve got that points the finger at me except that false statement and that statement is not accurate to the facts of the case.”

Part II of Mark Craighead’s story and struggle is forthcoming.

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At this point in our development, PI is only taking on cases in cooperation with other innocence projects. If you have been wrongfully convicted and your case involves DNA evidence, we recommend you contact the Cooley Innocence Project at Western Michigan Cooley Law School. If your case does not involve DNA, please contact the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. A third member of the Innocence Network is SADO, the State Appelate Defense Organization. For cases outside of Michigan, here is a list of innocence projects by state.