We want to congratulate the Michigan Innocence Clinic on their recent exoneration of David Gavitt. It is their sixth since they started in 2009. We also want to wish David Gavitt the very best as he begins to rebuild his life.
On March 9, 1985, Gavitt narrowly escaped his burning house while his wife and two young daughters never made it out. His 26 years behind bars rendered him unable to attend their funeral or even visit their graves. So he went straight there when he was released.
Ionia County Prosecutor Ronald Schafer accepted the reassessment of old arson forensics. A Michigan State Police crime lab technician erroneously found the carpet in the Gavitt family’s living room to have burn patterns suggesting a flame accelerant like gasoline. The only doubtful shred left in Schafer’s mind is the question as to why Gavitt broke a window in a room that was not his daughters’ bedroom, but rather told his wife to retrieve the girls and bring them to the room he broke the window in.
However when one awakes with his house in flames we must consider the possibility of unclear thought. Quick thinking may have led him to break a window he found clear of the flames. Quick thinking demands action upon opportunity. This little bit of doubt does not stand up to Gavitt’s his signs of desperation during the fire: his deep cuts from breaking the window, his second-degree burns, his clothing worn after breaking out into the wintertime (or lack thereof), and his neighbors having to physically prevent his reentry into the house.
We saw a few weeks ago Cook County (Illinois) prosecutors free James Kluppelberg after his already spent 22 years under the wrongful conviction for setting a fire to kill a mother and five children. His charge was also due to poor arson forensics that are now viewed as flawed. The current understanding of a fire behavior called a flashover–most basically defined as a sudden transition to a fully developed fire by “total surface involvement of all combustible material within the compartment”–now can explain previously thought arson-sourced fires.
It is critically important to be open to understanding what forensic science is telling us and to know that advancements, both in scientific techniques and interpretation of the results, are being made everyday. Arson forensics is a prime example of the limited science that was previously available and has sadly led to wrongful convictions.