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Exoneree adjusting to life outside the walls

By John Masson
Aug. 9, 2012

Starting life from scratch after being wrongly imprisoned for 27 years for murder and arson is no easy task, as David Lee Gavitt, recently exonerated thanks to the efforts of Michigan Law's Innocence Clinic, can attest.

"There have been some challenges, but I'm trying to tackle them and deal with them," Gavitt said.

Consider some of those challenges. When Gavitt walked out a prison door in Carson City, Mich., June 6, he had two steamer trunks and a typewriter. And that was everything he owned.

But the unseen burden he carried with him was heavier: his loss of fully half of his life. And even that wasn't the worst of it. He'd never been able to properly mourn the deaths of his wife and two small 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 was still in the hospital, being treated for injuries he sustained trying to rescue them and already under suspicion in their deaths.

"The 26 years I did in prison doesn't even come close to the hell of losing my wife and daughters," Gavitt said. "That was the ultimate hell. That, and the humiliation I felt just being accused of it."

Other challenges were more mundane, but no less considerable. If Gavitt had been an inmate being paroled, or being released after serving his full sentence, the State of Michigan would have helped him transition to freedom both before and after his release.

As someone whose innocence has been demonstrated in court, however, he receives no such help. The bitter irony is not lost on him: the people who lose large swaths of their lives serving time for crimes they didn't commit get no help from the very institutions that wronged them in the first place.

"People who are paroled or 'maxing out,' they do get assistance from the state. But exonerees like me and others, they're just basically shoved out into the world, and good luck," he said.

Gavitt said he's always been a hard worker. Over the course of decades in prison, he managed to work himself to the top of the inmate job ladder: When he was released, he was a food service clerk, ordering supplies and handling inmate payroll.

And that job paid him the princely sum of 32 cents per hour.

Over the course of his incarceration, he was able to amass about $1,000, which he brought out of prison with him. But since his release, he's been forced to rely on help from kindly donors and a girlfriend (now fiancée) who allows him to share her apartment. He's had solid job offers, but because he hasn't had a driver's license since the 1980s, he's been unable to accept those offers until he finishes the process of acquiring a new license and gets a car.

Fortunately, at least one employer is willing to hold a job until later this month, when Gavitt will finally be able to commute to the Grand Rapids location from his new home in Portage and begin supporting himself.

"Being confined in prison walls for so long, and then all of a sudden the walls open up and it's like being reborn," he said. "But as far as financial-wise, it's still rough."

There have been plenty of other developments in the free world since he was locked away, as well. He couldn't believe the amount of growth in his home of Ionia, Mich. And don't even ask him about iPods or iPads or iPhones.

"Technology has advanced so much, and I'm still learning," Gavitt said. "To be honest, I just feel really stupid at times, because I'm not up on it. But I'm learning."

Debit cards are a complete novelty, too.

"We had credit cards when I was out there, but now they have debit cards," he said. "You ought to see the people at the cash registers. It's really something when I'm trying to use a debit card."

Some innovations are manageable, or at least partially so.

"Like a cell phone," he said. He's fine with talking, he said. "But let me tell you, I suck at texting, I really do."

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