DETROIT — Public officials are immune to a lawsuit by a western Michigan man who was convicted of murder based on faulty fire science and spent 26 years in prison before his release in 2012, a federal appeals court said.
There “can be no doubt” that David Gavitt was convicted in the 1980s with evidence now known to be unreliable, but he failed to present facts that police and a prosecutor violated his constitutional rights at the time, the court said in a 3-0 decision last week.
“Due process guarantees a right to a fair trial, not perfection,” the court said.
Gavitt’s wife and two daughters were killed in a house fire in Ionia in 1985. He was accused of setting the fire but was injured in the blaze and denied any wrongdoing.
In 2012, the Ionia County prosecutor agreed that Gavitt should be released from prison after the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school presented opinions by arson experts as well as new evidence that the fire wasn’t started with gasoline.
In the civil lawsuit, the appeals court said Gavitt had to make a “plausible claim” that the acts of investigators violated his rights at the time of the fire.
The court noted that even one of Gavitt’s experts said he likely would have made the same mistakes, based on fire science in the 1980s.
“Using the methods of the 1980s during the 1980s does not violate the constitution,” the court said.
Separately, the court, citing procedural reasons, turned down an appeal from the estate of the late John DeVries, who worked on the investigation as a state police lab technician. A federal judge in Detroit is allowing Gavitt to try to find evidence that might show intentional or reckless wrongdoing on DeVries’ part during the investigation.
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