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David Gavitt, in striped shirt,  leaves prison with his legal team June 6, 2012

One Year Later, Exoneree Still Adjusting

By John Masson
June 6, 2013

Phones that aren't plugged into the wall. Phones that take pictures and play music. Phones that go on the Internet. The Internet itself, for crying out loud.

Considering that David Gavitt had zero firsthand experience with any of these and about a thousand other modern conveniences prior to his release from prison one year ago today, one of the Michigan Law attorneys who helped free him says he's readjusting well to life on the outside.

Gavitt served 27 years in prison for a fatal fire that killed his wife and two small children. The problem was, as Michigan Law's Innocence Clinic was ultimately able to prove, there was no arson. So on June 6, 2012, a door swung open at a state prison in Carson City, Mich., and Gavitt, pushing all his earthly possessions in a laundry cart, suddenly found himself a free man.

His attorneys, including Innocence Clinic staffer Imran Syed, '11, knew right away that it would take Gavitt some time to adjust to modern life.

"Once we got in the car I told David, 'Hey, your sister is coming to meet you, do you want to talk to her,' " Syed said. "And David said, 'Yeah, sure we can talk to her,' and I had to say, 'No, I mean right now, with this thing I'm holding, right here.' "

Syed said it was as if Mr. Spock had beamed directly into the car and tried to hand Gavitt his Starfleet communicator.

But cell phones were only the beginning of readjusting to freedom, which, for Gavitt, ended one night in March 1985 when his dog started scratching at his bedroom door. Gavitt opened the door and found his house was engulfed in fire. He woke his wife Angie, and told her to get their daughters, Katrinia and Tracy, while Gavitt himself went to a second bedroom and broke out a window, cutting his arm in the process.

But Gavitt was unable to fight his way through the heat and the flames, and before he could get to his daughters' room he was driven out of the house. Badly burned and dripping blood, he left the house, looped around, and tried to get to his family from outside. But the girls' window was too high off the ground. Neighbors had to hold him back to keep him from racing back into the house.

Gavitt's frantic rescue attempts didn't stop investigators from focusing on arson as the cause of the fire, said Michigan Law Prof. David Moran, one of the founders of the Law School's Innocence Clinic, which takes on cases of actual innocence where DNA evidence is not available to help bolster the case. Furthermore, Moran said, the fire happened during "the Dark Ages" of arson science, and investigators' focus was reinforced by bad science.

The bottom line: Gavitt was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole. And that's where matters stood until Michigan Law's Innocence Clinic—including then-student attorneys Syed, Caitlin Plummer, and Maxwell Kosman, as well as Moran and clinic co-founder and current Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack—convinced authorities to release Gavitt because the conviction was false. Nationally recognized arson litigator Michael McKenzie contributed his expertise as co-counsel—and did it pro bono.

Despite his triumph in the judicial system, though, Gavitt still emerged from prison with next to nothing. He'd worked every day in prison, but the average prisoner earns less than $1 per day.

"So right away, there was the basic stuff," Syed said. "How do you get an ID? How do you sign up with Manpower, so you can be registered to work? How do you get a bank card? It's just not that easy when you've had nothing for 27 years."

Gavitt progressed through the basics in the first six months or so, Syed said. He married and settled in an apartment in western Michigan, drives a forklift on the overnight shift at a Battle Creek business, and is gradually learning about things like computers and cell phones.

Now, with many of those simpler needs attended to, Syed hopes Gavitt can make even more progress.

"I'm hoping he can take a deep breath and start getting into things he wants to do, instead of just trying to catch up with everyday life," Syed said.

Meantime, for Gavitt and others who have proven to have been wrongfully convicted, progress is also being made. State lawmakers continue to discuss a bill that would compensate exonerees for the time they spend unjustly behind bars, and Gavitt's own civil suit is working its way into the federal court system.

Gavitt himself attended The Innocence Network's 2013 conference, in Charlotte, N.C., which Syed said he found enlightening.

"That whole experience helped change his mindset, I think. There were dozens of other people there who were just like him, and they were just stunned at David's story," Syed said. "But really, for David, it was the first time he got actual proof about how his case is changing the conversation on this. On some level, that really pleased him."

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