Sunday, December 2, 2012

David Gavitt: Arson "science." "When science fails us and we fail justice." Colin Maguire. Must Read. HL.

 STORY: "When Science Fails Us  and We Fail Justice: A Conversation About the Tragic Case of David Gavitt," by Colin W. Maguire, Publicity Editor, Thomas M. Cooley Law Review.

GIST:   "It is not often that the law jumps out and grabs you and forces you to pay attention. The story of David Gavitt is now well-documented in Michigan and around the country.1 In short David Gavitt was convicted of setting a fire at his home which killed his wife and two small daughters. While he lay in a hospital bed recovering from injuries sustained trying to save them, police collected evidence that would lead them to believe that David Gavitt was an arsonist who murdered his own family in cold blood. Bad science in his case, but also in the arson science community at-large, led directly to David’s conviction for three murders. David sat is jail for over 20 years before the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic took up his case. David was ultimately exonerated, and able to finally visit the graves of his family, after decades.2 Imran Syed worked on the David Gavitt’s case from the time he was law student at the University of Michigan. He now works as the Staff Attorney at the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic.3 Mr. Syed graciously agreed to sit down with me for an interview on September 27, 2012. I cannot thank him enough for the work he has done, and for giving me his valuable time. We also owe a great deal of thanks to the Detroit Legal News and the Ingham County Legal News for publicizing this case and bringing the particularly outstanding work of the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic to our attention here at the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review. The following is an edited transcript of a conversion involving one of the most fascinating and emotionally wrenching cases I have ever delved into. What happened to David Gavitt, and what Mr. Syed and his team found, tugs at the very base of our legal system because it forces us to question our own certainties. What will they say about us in 20 years? We can only pray it is not what this conversation reveals about courts and arson science from the 1980’s to mid-1990’s.........Q: "You co-authored a fantastic article on shifting forensic science and its effect on court decisions, with a focus in arson analysis (Caitlin Plummer & Imran Syed, Shifted Science and Post-Conviction Relief, 8 Stan. J. Civ. Rts. & Civ. Liberties 259 (2012)). In it, you document how out-dated arson science was. In perhaps the best example, you show how, until recently, arson experts were unaware of the “flashover” phenomenon in building fires – a process wherein a room becomes so hot that the air combusts and leaves marks similar to those left from accelerant use. Are you more fascinated or frightened that this phenomena was unknown to investigators for decades? A: "This is something I have wondered about – how could this go unnoticed for this amount of time? I have tried to talk with arson expert John J. Lentini about it, and others, but it still blows my mind. Strangely, there was not a lot of testing in arson science. Theories were merely based off what sounded right and what we knew about fires that burned on smaller scales. For instance, we “knew” that fires burned upwards, so people concluded that the starting point of a fire is the lowest point of origin. However, science is more than common-sense, and experiments were needed. Flashover was the missing link that was not understood in the 1980s. There is a great Youtube video that shows a flashover simulation occurring in matter of two minutes; you can see there that fires may burn upward initially, but very quickly consume the whole room. The whole situation is frightening because hundreds of people were convicted on this junk science in the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s. Still, we have to thank the core group of experts who asked the tough questions and did the research. The flashover effect is something a lay person would not rationally perceive. You put a smoldering cigarette on a couch, and three minutes later windows are exploding and the structure is starting to collapse. The average person thinks, “something crazy and malicious must have happened here.” In fact, it could just be a cigarette on a couch. It is really, really sad that people were convicted on evidence that was not properly tested. True, new science has replaced this junk science in most situations. Yet, the Innocence Clinic’s work indicates a handful of Michigan cases in the last 5-10 years where junk science was used in an arson conviction."

The entire interview can be found at:

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The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at:

Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at:

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Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog.