After 26 years in Prison, Ionia Man is Cleared in Fire that Killed his Family

David Ashenfelter
June 7, 2012

An Ionia man who spent 26 years behind bars for murdering his wife and daughters in a house fire walked out of prison a free man Wednesday after prosecutors agreed he was convicted with faulty evidence and outdated science.

His first stop: a cemetery near Ionia to visit the graves of his wife and daughters. It was the first time he’d been there.

“It was a very emotional scene,” said David Moran, a law professor and co-founder of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, which fought for the release of 54-year-old David Lee Gavitt. Moran said 15-20 of Gavitt’s family members also arrived to welcome him home.

Gavitt’s conviction is among several nationwide that innocence projects have challenged with modern fire science.

Last week, James Kluppelberg was freed after Cook County prosecutors dropped their case against him. He had spent nearly 22 years in prison for setting a fire in Chicago that killed a mother and her five children.

Fire experts said he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on the basis of outdated fire science.

Gavitt, flanked by Innocence Clinic staffers and students, walked out of Carson City Correctional Facility at 1:20 p.m., pushing a white bin containing his belongings.

On Tuesday, Ionia County Prosecutor Ronald Schafer asked Chief Ionia County Circuit Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger to sign an order granting Gavitt a new trial — which Schafer said would not be held because the evidence used to convict him is flawed.

Moran praised Schafer: “We are very grateful that he came to the conclusion that David Gavitt should not be in prison any longer. He did what a prosecutor should do, which is to approach a case with an open mind and make a skeptical but honest assessment after consulting with experts.”

Schafer agreed with the clinic’s experts that a Michigan State Police crime lab technician — who has since died — botched a test on carpet from Gavitt’s home, erroneously concluding that it contained traces of gasoline. Schafer also agreed that, based on modern fire science, investigators mistakenly ruled the fire an arson.

By today’s standards, Schafer said, the fire would not have been ruled a crime.

“We now know that the evidence introduced at trial was not good,” Schafer said Wednesday. He said he had the evidence re-examined by experts from the State Police, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a private laboratory.

But Schafer, who took office eight years ago, said he still has lingering doubts about what happened on that wintry night in March 1985, when Gavitt said he was awakened by the sound of his dog scratching at his bedroom door.

Gavitt, then 26 and a Steelcase factory worker, opened the door and saw flames in his living room.

He yelled to his sleeping wife: “Angie, you’ve got to get the kids out of here!”

As she headed to the children’s bedroom, Gavitt said he raced to a back bedroom to break out a window so the family could escape. After shattering the window and severely cutting his forearm, he headed toward the children’s room to get his family. But he said the flames and smoke were too intense.

Bleeding profusely and blackened with soot, Gavitt retreated to the back bedroom, climbed out of the broken window and circled back to the children’s bedroom from outside to try to rescue them. But he said the window was too high.

Neighbors had to restrain him from trying to re-enter the home.

His wife and children, ages 3 and 11 months, were later found dead of smoke inhalation.

State Police fire investigators suspected arson because of burn patterns inside the house. And a State Police crime lab test on carpet samples showed traces of gasoline.

A jury convicted Gavitt of first-degree felony murder and a judge sentenced him in 1986 to mandatory life in prison.

That would have been the end of the story but for the Innocence Clinic and major advances in fire science since the mid-1980s. Gavitt is the sixth prisoner they have gotten released since their founding in 2009.

The clinic took up the case because of Gavitt’s claims of innocence and the lack of corroborating evidence that a crime occurred.

“David Gavitt almost died in that fire and a neighbor had to hold him down to prevent him from going back into the house to rescue his wife and kids,” Moran said.

He said investigators never came up with a solid motive for Gavitt to torch the home and kill his family: No gas can was found at the scene and Gavitt fled into the cold and snow in his bare feet without a shirt, bleeding from a severe cut and suffering second-degree burns.

Schafer said he still doesn’t understand why Gavitt didn’t go with his wife to the children’s nearby bedroom, break a window and escape from there instead of running to the other bedroom.

The Innocence Clinic had an independent laboratory in Indiana review the carpet test results.

John Lentini, a fire science expert in Florida, reviewed the other evidence.

He told the clinic that the burn patterns that had caused investigators to suspect arson weren’t caused by an accelerant, like gasoline, but by flashover — a then-misunderstood phenomenon in which a closed room fills with toxic gases and bursts into flames.

“In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire at the Gavitt residence was intentionally set,” Lentini said in a 65-page affidavit the clinic presented last September to Judge Hoseth Kreeger.

When Gavitt went on trial, Lentini said, most fire investigators had little training in scientific methods. What they knew about fire science was based mostly on mythology and misconception, he said.

In 1985, he said, the National Fire Protection Association became concerned about the reliability of fire investigations and appointed a committee to study the issue.

In 1992, six years after Gavitt’s trial, the association published a guide for fire and explosion investigations. Although fire investigators initially greeted the guide with hostility, they slowly came to accept it, Lentini said.

The lead investigator in the Gavitt probe, retired State Police Sgt. John Fatchett of Parma disagrees with Lentini’s findings. “As far as I’m concerned, we got the right result,” he told the Free Press.

Michael McKenzie, an Atlanta, Ga., lawyer who specializes in fire litigation and whom the U-M Innocence Clinic consulted on the case, said Gavitt’s life has been devastated by what happened.

“But even more mind-boggling,” he said, “is that there are many other people just like him who should never have been convicted.”