After serving 26 years of a life sentence, David Lee Gavitt has been cleared of the murder of his wife and two young daughters. His first stop as a free man was to visit the graves of the loved ones he tragically lost when his home caught fire back in 1985. Photo via Michigan Department of Corrections
After serving 26 years of a life sentence after being charged with first-degree felony murder of his wife and two young daughters, David Lee Gavitt is walking free as an innocent man.
Gavitt, 54, of Ionia, Michigan, was able to visit the graves of his loved ones for the first time in nearly three decades after being released from prison on Wednesday. It was where he went immediately after leaving Carson City Correctional Facility, after being met by about 20 of his family members.
Law professor and co-founder of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Mighigan, who fought for Gavitt’s release from prison, told the Detroit Free Press that it was a “very emotional scene.”
In 1985, Gavitt, then 26-years-old, and his wife Angela went to bed as they did every other night. They were woken up by their dog scratching at the bedroom door.
When Gavitt opened the door, he found the living room on fire. He called to his wife to save their two children, three-year-old Katrina and eleven-month-old Tracy.
Gavitt ran to a back bedroom to break a window so the family could escape, severely cutting his forearm in the process. He attempted to return to the children’s bedrooms from the inside, but he said the smoke and flames were too intense.
Gavitt returned to the back bedroom, climbed out, and while bleeding profusely and covered in soot, attempted to gain access to his children’s bedroom from the outside, though the windows turned out to be too high. Neighbors had to restain Gavitt from reentering the home.
Gavitt’s family were later found dead of smoke inhalation.
Michigan State Police fire investigators thought arson was involved because of burn patterns inside the home. A State Police crime lab test showed traces of gasoline on the carpet samples obtained from the house.
Although there was no motive, no gas can found at the scene, and Gavitt fled from the home into the cold and snow with no shirt and barefoot while suffering from second-degree burns and bleeding severely only to try and re-enter to save his family and risking his own life, Gavitt was charged and convicted.
The Innocence Clinic had an independant lab review the evidence in light of modern scientific knowledge.
John Lentini, a fire science expert in Florida who reviewed the evidence, said that the burn patterns in the carpet were not caused by an accelerant like gasoline as fire inspectors in the mid-80s had suspected, but by a phenomenon called “flashover” which was misunderstood back then. Flashover is when a closed room fills up with gases and then explodes in flames.
In an affidavit, Lentini said that back when Gavitt was being tried, most fire investigators had little training in scientific methods and what they knew about fire science was based mostly on mythology and misconception.
Ionia County Prosecutor Ronald Schafer agreed with the clinic’s experts that the Michigan State Police fire investigator – who is no longer alive – had botched the tests on the carpet samples and that it was an eronious conclusion that there was any trace of gasoline.
Schafer said that by today’s standards and modern scientific knowledge the fire would not have been ruled a crime.
Michael McKenzie, an Atlanta, Georgia, lawyer who specializes in fire litigation and whom the Innocence Clinic consulted on the case told the Detroit Free Press that what is “even more mind-boggling is that there are many other people just like him who should never have been convicted.”
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