At about 9 p.m. on March 9, 1985, 26-year-old David Lee Gavitt and his wife, Angela, went into their bedroom to have sex, leaving the television on and candles burning in the living room of their home in Ionia, Michigan.
About an hour later, they heard their dog scratching on the bedroom door. Gavitt pulled on a pair of jeans and opened the door to discover the living room on fire.
He later told police that he told his wife to rouse their daughters, three-year-old Katrina and 11-month-old Tracy and then went to a back bedroom where he smashed open a window, severely cutting his arm, so the family could escape.
He then headed toward the children’s bedroom, but flames and smoke forced him to crawl. His calls to his wife went unanswered and he could not see. When his hair began to singe and he felt his back burning, he backed up and crawled out the broken window.
Meanwhile, neighbors spotted the fire and called the fire department. Gavitt and a neighbor kicked in the kitchen door, but were forced back by dense black smoke. When Gavitt kept trying to get inside, neighbors forced him to lie in a snow bank, wrapped a cloth around his bleeding arm and covered him with a blanket.
Fire fighters arrived within minutes, but the blaze, described later as “a rolling inferno,” was out of control. By the time firefighters gained entrance, Gavitt’s wife and daughters were dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Gavitt was taken for medical treatment of burns on the bottom of his feet, his left arm, his back and his face, as well as lacerations of his arm.
By the end of the following day, fire investigators said the blaze had been intentionally set, ignited after as much as two gallons of gasoline were poured on the living room carpet and first floor of the home.
When police interviewed him at the hospital and suggested he had set the blaze, he denied the accusation.
Several weeks later, when Gavitt was discharged from the hospital, he was charged with arson and three counts of first-degree murder.
He went on trial before a jury in Ionia County Circuit Court in February 1986.
John Fatchett, a detective sergeant in the Michigan State Police Fire Marshal’s Division, testified that he concluded that the fire was intentionally set using a flammable liquid because of “indicators” of arson that were present after the blaze was extinguished. He said these included “pour patterns” that proved a flammable liquid had been dumped on the floor. He said the fire was too hot and burned too fast to have been started with anything but an ignitable liquid. And he said that burn patterns as well as the depth of the burning of the floor were evidence the fire was set.
Dr. Ronald Edwards, a consultant retained by the prosecution, also testified that the fire was set with a flammable liquid based on his discovery of three separate points of origin, pour patterns in the living room and down the hallway to the doorway of the children’s bedroom as well as “alligatoring” of the wood—a charring of the wood that leaves marks that resemble the skin of an alligator.
John DeVries, a laboratory technician at the Michigan State Police Crime Laboratory, testified that he analyzed 17 samples of debris with gas chromatography, a technique used to detect the presence of chemicals. He testified that he detected the presence of gasoline in two samples. He also told the jury that he conducted “flame tests” on carpet that survived the fire and determined that the carpet would not burn without the presence of gasoline.
The prosecution presented no evidence that Gavitt had a motive to burn down his house and kill his family.
The defense did not consult a fire expert, seemingly accepting the evidence that the fire was arson. Instead, the defense relied upon on Gavitt’s account of what happened, that there was no proof that Gavitt set the fire and the testimony of neighbors who saw him trying to get back into the house to rescue his wife and daughters.
Despite that testimony, in closing argument the prosecutor argued that Gavitt “really didn’t seem too bent out of shape about saving his family. Yes, he was crying. Yes, he was carrying on, but he sure as heck wasn’t doing anything.”
Gavitt was convicted of arson and three counts of first-degree murder on February 14, 1986. Judge James L. Banks sentenced him to life in prison without parole on April 18, 1986.
Gavitt’s appeal was denied by the Michigan Court of Appeals on September 21, 1988 and the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal on May 31, 1989.
In the fall of 2010, David Moran and Bridget McCormack at the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, assisted by Michael McKenzie of Cozen O'Connor in Atlanta, Georgia, began reinvestigating Gavitt’s case. Several arson experts, including John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading arson scientists, began examining the testimony and evidence in the case.
On September 14, 2011, a post-conviction petition was filed seeking a new trial for Gavitt contending that all of the evidence that the prosecution witnesses had used to conclude the fire was intentionally set was wrong.
The fire started in the living room, the experts concluded, and flashover occurred. Flashover—a phenomenon where a fire reaches a point where it explodes and totally envelops a room—had not yet been discovered in the mid-1980’s when the blaze occurred at the Gavitt home.
Every single “indicator” that Fatchett and Edwards cited as evidence of arson has since been disproved by scientific experiment, the experts said.
Moreover, the assertion that gasoline was found in two of the samples of evidence was wrong—the lab technician had misread the reports of the tests he performed. Lentini and Craig Balliet, another fire expert, both determined that DeVries had botched the examination of the evidence.
In an affidavit, Lentini said the experts “bundled (arson) myths together” and concluded the blaze was intentionally set. “In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire…was intentionally set,” Lentini said.
After the petition was filed, Ionia County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Schafer requested that the chemical analysis be examined by another expert, who concurred with the defense findings.
On June 5, 2012, Ionia County Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Hoseth-Kreeger, at the joint request of Schafer and Gavitt’s attorneys, vacated his conviction and the charges were dismissed.
On June 6, Gavitt was released. His first stop was the cemetery where his wife and daughters were buried.
– Maurice Possley