DETROIT – David Gavitt spent 26 years in prison for the deaths of his wife and two daughters before a prosecutor agreed that the evidence behind his arson conviction was no longer credible. The case helped inspire a Michigan law aimed at compensating the wrongfully convicted.
Yet the state now is vigorously resisting Gavitt’s request for money, going so far as to question whether he’s really innocent. He would qualify for more than $1 million.
“My reaction? I don’t know how to put this – anger,” said Gavitt, 59, who works the midnight shift at a tub manufacturer. “It’s like a slap in the face. … I thought we lived in America where the accused doesn’t have to prove innocence. They’re judging me all over again.”
Gavitt’s claim under Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act – $50,000 for each year in prison – would seem like a slam dunk. The evidence used to convict him was thoroughly discredited through major advances in fire science, and Ionia County prosecutor Ron Schafer in 2012 declined a second trial.
But Schafer’s successor and the Michigan attorney general’s office aren’t convinced he should be paid.
“Although Mr. Gavitt is no longer guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime initially charged, there certainly is circumstantial evidence that supports he is not innocent of wrongdoing,” prosecutor Kyle Butler said in a letter to Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Michigan is among 32 states and the District of Columbia that provide money to people who are rebuilding their lives after being wrongly convicted. Perjury, bad evidence, sloppy police work – all have led to reversals, sometimes after decades in prison.
Gavitt was convicted of arson and murder in 1986 in a tragedy that stunned the small town of Ionia, 130 miles northwest of Detroit. His wife, Angie, and their daughters, ages 3 and 11, died. Wearing only jeans, Gavitt was rushed to a hospital where he spent weeks recovering from severe burns.
He insisted the fire in the living room was an accident. Gavitt and his wife were smokers, and an ashtray was in the room. Angie also collected lamps that burned oil.
But experts testified that burn patterns in the living room were typical of an intentional fire and that traces of gasoline were detected.
Gavitt’s appeals failed until the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school took his case in 2010. By then, the science of fire investigations had dramatically changed. Different experts examined the evidence from the 1985 blaze and refuted the arson theory presented at trial.
In agreeing to drop the convictions and life sentence, Schafer said an intentional fire caused by gasoline could no longer be verified. But at the same time he also noted there still were a “great deal of questions” about what Gavitt did during that chaotic night.
Butler, who has been Ionia’s prosecutor since 2016, also apparently has doubts. He didn’t respond to an interview request but expressed concerns in his letter to the attorney general.
Judge Michael Talbot, who is overseeing Gavitt’s claim for payment, so far is siding with the state. In a Jan. 8 decision, he said Gavitt still “must present clear and convincing evidence” that he didn’t kill his family.
Gavitt’s attorney, J. Paul Janes, said the judge’s ruling is a “complete 180-degree shift of the burden of proof.” Imran Syed, a law professor who helped win Gavitt’s release, believes Talbot is misinterpreting the compensation law.
“Everything they used against David to say this fire was intentionally set was determined to be junk science. When junk science disappears, that’s it,” Syed said.
The big irony is that Gavitt’s case was often raised when the Michigan Legislature voted to pay people who were wrongly convicted. The law started in 2017.
“The general public would never believe a man out for six years still hasn’t gotten a penny from anybody,” Syed said. “He’s working hard just to make ends meet. After all he’s been through, a lot of people wouldn’t have their sanity.”
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