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.
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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.
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