Michigan Junk Science Fire Investigators Not Liable for Erroneous Conviction

A man who was convicted of arson for a 1985 fire that killed his wife and two daughters, has lost his bid to hold investigators accountable for the twenty-five plus years he spent in prison because they used now-discredited myths about arson.

In a ruling handed down last week, the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a civil rights action brought by David L. Gavitt. Gavitt sought to hold investigators from the Michigan State Police Arson Strike Force Unit and the Ionia Police Department liable for violating his civil rights.

As explained by the 6th Circuit:

  • David Gavitt, was sentenced to life in prison in 1986 after a jury found him guilty of arson and felony murder, charges stemming from a house fire that took the lives of his wife and two daughters.
  • In June 2012, the state court granted Gavitt’s unopposed motion for relief from judgment based on newly discovered evidence. The newly discovered evidence is in the nature of advancements in fire science research and investigation methods that tend to impugn some of the evidence on which Gavitt’s convictions were based.
  • The judgment was vacated, the charges dismissed, and Gavitt was released from prison.
  • The supporting brief relied heavily on John Lentini’s Affidavit and similarly argued that, because of “significant advancements in the field of fire science and arson investigation,” there is newly-discovered evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case against Gavitt.
  • The field of fire investigation has undergone a complete revolution since Mr. Gavitt was convicted in 1986. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association adopted NFPA 921, the current standard of care for fire investigations, which for the first time put the field of fire investigation on a scientific basis.
  • In light of the changes in the field of fire investigation, John Lentini – a world-renowned fire investigator who has reviewed all available testimony and evidence in this case – has concluded that there is no basis to conclude that arson was the cause of the Gavitt fire. Mr. Lentini’s affidavit is attached to the brief accompanying this motion.
  • Lentini’s findings are rooted in the crucial concept of “flashover,” which was not well understood by the fire investigation community at the time of Mr. Gavitt’s trial. During flashover – a phenomenon that takes place when a compartment like the Gavitt living room catches fire – a room becomes so hot that every exposed combustible surface can catch fire.
  • As Mr. Lentini admitted in his affidavit, at the time that Sgt. Fatchett and the Ionia County Prosecutor’s expert, Dr. Edwards, considered the impact of flashover, they had no way of knowing that their generally accepted interpretations of burn patterns would be refuted years later.
  • Theories that low-burning, alligatoring, pour patterns, depth of char, and temperature and speed of fires can serve as indicators of arson were once unquestioned, but have been completely and unequivocally repudiated by rigorous scientific testing.
  • As such, every indicator of arson relied upon by the prosecution’s experts at Mr. Gavitt’s trial has been discredited and is understood to be useless in determining the true origin and cause of fires.
  • Many factors once thought to be present only in accelerated fires are now understood to be present in natural fires that have undergone flashover and progressed to full room involvement, a phenomenon that was not understood in 1986.
  • Following his release from prison, Gavitt filed the instant action, alleging that his wrongful conviction was not merely the product of a tragic but innocent misunderstanding of scientific evidence.
  • In an eleven-count, 59-page complaint, he asserted claims against numerous defendants under state and federal law.
  • Gavitt contends that members of the prosecution team – attorneys and law enforcement officials denied him a fair trial by conducting an incomplete investigation, misrepresenting evidence, and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence.

The trial court dismissed Gavitt’s claims against all the defendants except for the Estate of John E. DeVries. De Vries was a forensic laboratory technician for the Michigan State Police who testified at Gavitt’s trial. Gavitt alleged that De Vries, who died in the intervening years, lied during the proceedings.

In a lengthy decision the 6th Circuit agreed with the trial court that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity or otherwise could not be held liable, and affirmed the dismissal.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Gavitt v Born

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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