In 1985, David Lee Gavitt was a 26-year-old married father of two. He lived with his wife, Angela, and their two daughters, 3-year-old Katrina and 11-month-old Tracy, in Ionia, Michigan.
On the night of the 9th of March, 1985, David and Angela watched some television before tucking their daughters into bed. Afterwards, they retried to their own bedroom. However, David had earlier lit some candles in the living room and had forgotten to blow them out. It was an accident that he would come to regret for the rest of his life.
A couple of hours after the young couple went to bed, they were awoken by their dog scratching at the bedroom door. When David opened the door, he was horrified to see that the living room was up in flames. As Angela rushed to wake up the girls, David ran across the hallway and smashed a back window so that the family could escape. In retrospect, this probably made the inferno worse as it created a draft.
Once the window was smashed, David attempted to reach the girls but by now, the fire was engulfing the entire home. He was unable to force his way to their bedroom and as he called out to Angela, he heard no reply. David reluctantly climbed out of the window on his own, wearing only a pair of jeans.
He ran to his neighbor’s home, leaving behind a trail of blood from the lacerations he had sustained from the smashed window.1 His neighbor called the fire department while David ran back to the burning home to attempt to re-enter. Unfortunately, it was much too late for Angela, Katrina and Tracy. They perished inside the home. David was rushed to hospital where he was treated for extensive burns and lacerations.
As if losing his wife and children wasn’t traumatic enough, investigators announced that they believed that the fire was started intentionally and David was the main suspect. Following his discharge from the hospital, he was charged with the murders of his family.
During the trial, the prosecution alleged that the evidence of arson was “clear.” They suggested that the fire had been started with some kind of flammable liquid and claimed that there were “pour patterns” on the floor of the home as well as intense low burns which indicated that an accelerant had been used. Moreover, they argued that testing on the carpet inside the home yielded traces of gasoline. However, a Michigan State Police Crime Lab technician had botched the test and came to a conclusion that was not supported by science. Nevertheless, this was seemingly lost on both the prosecution and the defence.
Despite the fact that several witnesses saw David desperately attempt to rescue his family combined with the fact that there was no motivation, he was found guilty of all three murders and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility parole in 1986.
It wouldn’t be until 2010 that the case got a second look. After learning about the inconsistencies within the case and understanding that arson is a forensic science in itself, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School decided they would re-investigate. According to the Michigan Innocence Clinic, around 3% of all prisoners are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted. In Michigan alone, this would mean that thousands of prisoners are innocent.
Several experts were called in to examine the evidence found within the home. These experts included John Lentini who is known as “the nation’s leading expert” in debunking arson myths.2 The carpet samples were retested by State Police, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as a private laboratory.
It was determined that gasoline was not present on the samples. They discovered that a flashover had occurred as opposed to a liquid being used to ignite the fire. A flashover is a rare phenomenon in which a fire explodes and completely takes over a room, engulfing it in fire almost immediately. “In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire at the Gavitt residence was intentionally set,” concluded Lentini.
On the 6th of June, 2012, David Lee Gavitt was released from the Carson City Correctional Facility after 27 years. Prosecutors had agreed that David had been convicted based on faulty evidence and outdated science.3 Outside of prison, his attorney, Michael McKenzie, said: “There are many other people just like him who should never have been arrested.”
In fact, in the late 1980, around 25% of all house fires in the United States alone were considered arson but today, that figure is around 6%. Thousands of fires would no longer be considered arson today because there is a much better understanding of fire science.
Following his release, the first place that David asked to go was the cemetery where his family were buried. He remained at the grave for two hours. It was the first time he had ever been to his family’s graves. In June of 2014, David filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction; the lawsuit was dismissed. However, in 2019, David was awarded $1.3 million in compensation from the state of Michigan.4
- Ann Arbor News, 23 June, 2012 – “How U-M Helped Free Imprisoned Man Falsely Convicted of Killing His Family”
- Minneapolis Examiner, 6 June, 2012 – “David Lee Gavitt Released After Almost 27 Years in Prison”
- UPI, 7 June, 2012 – “Man Freed After 26 Years in Prison”