The hit man's first acknowledgement that he was involved came only about two weeks after Davontae Sanford was sent away. But prosecutors repeatedly refused to reopen the case, believing they had already put the right killer behind bars.
Sanford, 23, emerged from a prison in Ionia in western Michigan on Wednesday. He declined to speak to reporters in Ionia and quickly drove off with a brother and two lawyers for the 130-mile trip back to Detroit.
After returning to the city, he told reporters Wednesday evening that he wants to try to "put this behind me and move on with my life" and take "one day at a time, one step at a time."
A day earlier, Sanford's guilty pleas were erased by a judge at the request of prosecutors who conceded the case was compromised by flawed police work.
"I feel blessed," said Sanford's mother, Taminko Sanford, who stayed behind to greet her son at home.
Sanford was 14 -- blind in one eye and barely able to read or write -- when he was charged with killing four people at a drug den in his neighbourhood in 2007. At 15, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the midst of trial and was sentenced to a minimum of 39 years in prison.
The case appeared closed and unremarkable until lawyers discovered the hit man's confession to the same so-called Runyon Street murders, along with eight other killings, just 15 days after Sanford was sent to prison. That touched off years of efforts to get the guilty pleas set aside, but prosecutors resisted at every turn until state police were asked last year to take a fresh look.
But Sanford can sue police over civil rights violations, which is a common practice in these types of cases, Raben said.
Smothers, 35, is in prison for 52 years after pleading guilty in 2010 to eight killings. He said he was regularly hired by drug dealers to kill others in the trade but would never take on someone like Sanford as a sidekick.