Skip navigation

Sixth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment Dismissal in Lawsuit Filed by Man Wrongfully Convicted of Arson, Murder

On September 1, 2016, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a district court order dismissing most of a lawsuit filed by a man who spent 26 years in prison for an arson and murder he didn't commit.

In 1986, David Gavitt was sentenced to life in prison after a Michigan jury found him guilty of arson and felony murder, charges that stemmed from a house fire that took the lives of Gavitt's wife and two daughters. Gavitt was suspected, and later convicted of the charges, based on burn patterns the arson. investigators thought to indicate a fire that was set intentionally.

In September 2011, a motion was filed on Gavitt's behalf by the University of Michigan Law School's Innocence Clinic seeking relief from his judgment and sentence. The motion was based on advances in fire science research and investigation methods that tended to cast doubt on what was believed at the time to be the significance of the burn pattern evidence. In June 2012, a state court judge granted Gavitt's motion based on the newly discovered evidence, vacated the judgment, and released Gavitt from prison.

Two years later Gavitt filed a civil rights action against several city and county entities, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and investigators. Gavitt claimed the defendants conspired to deprive him of his rights by intentionally misrepresenting evidence and failing to divulge exculpatory evidence.

The district court, on motion from all defendants, dismissed all but one defendant, holding that Gavitt alleged insufficient facts to state a valid claim for relief. The only remaining defendant was the Estate of John DeVries, a state crime lab technician who testified at Gavitt's criminal trial and, according to Gavitt, "reported erroneous test results," i.e., that the carpet in Gavitt's house would not burn the way it did without an accelerant.

Gavitt appealed the dismissals, and DeVries' Estate appealed the denial of their motion to dismiss. The Sixth Circuit, affirmed the district court in its entirety.

First, DeVries' appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The record was not so complete nor so clear, the Sixth Circuit held, "as to permit a ruling that the Estate's evidence sufficiency appeal presents a purely legal issue," thus depriving the appellate court of jurisdiction, it ruled.

In denying Gavitt's appeal, the court found that while it was clear he was wrongly convicted and imprisoned "based on evidence now known to be unreliable," he failed to allege any facts which would support a claim that any of the defendants (except DeVries) acted with a culpable state of mind. In short, the court found that "using the methods of the 1980s during the 1980s does not violate the Constitution."

The Sixth Circuit thus held that the dismissed defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the district court did not err in granting their motion to dismiss. The case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings against DeVries' Estate. See Gavitt v. Born, et al., No.15-2136/2434 (6th Cir. 09/01/2016).

Related legal case

Gavitt v. Born, et al