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By John MassonJune 7, 2012
Twenty-seven years of bitter injustice ended at 1:20 p.m. June 6 when a prison door swung open in Carson City, Mich., and David Lee Gavitt walked out a free man.
Gavitt pushed an industrial laundry bin loaded with all his earthly possessions—two heavy steamer trunks and a typewriter—across the prison parking lot. But the unseen burden he carried with him was even heavier: his loss, to three wrongful murder convictions, of fully half of his life.
And even that wasn't the worst of it. He'd never been able to properly mourn the death of his wife and two tiny daughters, killed in the 1985 house fire that set him on a collision course with bad science and the criminal justice system. Because by the time his family was buried, Gavitt, who was seriously injured trying to rescue them from the fire, had already been locked up and falsely charged with murder.
When he was freed 27 years later, his lawyers from the University of Michigan Law School's Innocence Clinic—Imran Syed and Caitlin Plummer and professors Bridget McCormack and David Moran, '91—walked alongside him and helped him push his cart. It seemed only natural: they've been pushing for his release since September 2010, when then- second-year law students Plummer, Syed, and a third student, Max Kosman, all 2011 grads, read Gavitt's application and argued forcefully for the clinic to take his case.
"The moment…when David was released is one I can't describe," Syed said. "When the other prisoners saw us walking out with him, they applauded. It was an overwhelming moment, and one we hope will happen more often."
The moment was similar for Plummer.
"As the prison door opened, and I saw the expression on David's face, I was completely overcome with emotion," Plummer said. "Both immense joy that David finally had this freedom, but also a deep sadness that it took this long. Everyone was at a loss for words—all we could do was hug him and wipe our eyes. It is a moment that I will never forget and one that will continue to inspire me as a lawyer."
Moran said Gavitt's case exemplifies problems with arson investigations from that era.
"We knew right away that this case happened during the Dark Ages of arson science," said Moran, who cofounded the clinic with McCormack. Gavitt is the sixth person freed during the clinic's three-year history. "This was during a time when poorly trained experts classified countless natural fires as arsons."
Gavitt's nightmare began to unfold on a cold March night in Ionia, Mich., in 1985 when his dog started scratching at his bedroom door. Gavitt opened the bedroom door to find his house in flames. He woke his wife Angie and told her to get their daughters, Katrinia and Tracy, while he went to a second bedroom and broke out a window, slicing open his forearm in the process.
But the heat and fire overcame him before he could get to his daughters' room, and he was driven out of the house. Badly burned and dripping blood from his forearm, he looped around and tried to get to his family from outside, but the girls' window was too high. Neighbors had to hold him back to keep him from running back into the flames.
Despite that, police and prosecutors from the start focused on proving the case was arson, Moran said—despite a complete absence of motive. They argued the fire was too hot and moved too fast to be accidental. Experts used now-debunked theories to convince jurors that gasoline had been poured on the floor. One test that supposedly proved the presence of gasoline was simply botched by a State Police crime lab technician.
Jurors convicted Gavitt and a judge sentenced him to life in prison without hope of parole, which is where his case stood until his application for help was reviewed by the Law School's Innocence Clinic, which focuses on non-DNA-based cases.
The clinic consulted Michael McKenzie, a lawyer for Cozen O'Connor in Atlanta who specializes in arson, who took on the case without charge. McKenzie sent the case to the leading American expert on arson, John Lentini, who concluded the fire wasn't fuelled by gasoline and there was "no evidence whatsoever of a crime."
The clinic petitioned an Ionia County judge for relief from judgment. The county prosecutor, who reviewed the information, asked a judge to sign an order granting Gavitt a new trial. But it's a trial that will never be held, because the prosecutor consulted his own experts, who confirmed that there was no gasoline on the carpet and the indicators of arson used back in 1986 are invalid today.
Moran and McCormack went to Ionia June 6 to pick up the court order freeing their client. Syed, now the Innocence Clinic's staff attorney, joined them, as did Plummer, now a staff attorney with the University of Wisconsin's Innocence Project. Other students who helped on the case, including Latoya Antonio, '10, and Kosman, couldn't make it back in time. But those who did were joined by McKenzie, who caught a flight when he heard, at 4 p.m. the day before, that Gavitt was about to be freed.
To minimize delay, workers in Ionia's old-fashioned courthouse faxed the fresh court order to the nearby prison.
When the team got to the prison, Gavitt was almost ready to go. Moments later, as he hurried across the prison parking lot, with the inmates in the exercise yard breaking into spontaneous cheers behind him, Gavitt asked Syed and Plummer for one more thing.
He wanted to be driven straight to the cemetery where his family is buried.
He got into Syed's car and rode a couple of dozen miles across mid-Michigan on the kind of glorious June day that can remind even a non-prisoner about how beautiful it is to be free.
Gavitt clambered out of the car at the graveyard. He paused a few moments, then, wordlessly, crossed the grass to the marble marker with its laser-etched picture of his wife and two daughters. He fell to his knees.
Long minutes passed while Gavitt knelt by the gravestone, touching it with his hand, occasionally resting his head on the sharp-cut edge. Wiping his eyes. The lawyers paced, or turned away to offer privacy. Most wiped their own eyes.
The spell wasn't broken until Gavitt's relatives, summoned by Gavitt's lawyers, began arriving at the graveyard in a medley of joyous hugs, commingled with bittersweet tears over the years lost.
"I never thought it would happen," Gavitt told his lawyers at one point. "All of you guys, I can't express. ...The words, I just can't find. You're above just superior people. Thank you so much. I don't know what else to say."
"Thank you is enough," Moran replied.
Later, Gavitt turned to one of his sisters.
"Honest," he said. "I thought I was going to die in there."
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