Man wrongfully convicted of family’s deaths gets $1.3M

Ionia County

IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — An Ionia man who was wrongfully convicted in the deaths of his wife and two young daughters will get more than $1.3 million from the state.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Thursday she approved the wrongful imprisonment compensation for 61-year-old David Gavitt.

Gavitt had been in prison since 1986 after a jury convicted him of three counts of felony murder and one count of arson for the March 1985 fire at his home that killed his wife and two daughters.

He was serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole when the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic took on his case. In 2011, the Innocence Clinic called for Gavitt’s exoneration after finding the arson investigation science prosecutors relied on during his trial had been discredited after Gavitt’s conviction, and analysis proved there was no evidence the fire in the case was intentionally set.

The prosecutor’s office reviewed the case and agreed. Gavitt was freed in 2012, and his first stop was the cemetery to visit the gravesites of his wife and daughters, which he had never seen.

“I cried a lot,” Gavitt told Target 8 about that day. “I talked to my wife and my daughters. It still hurts, probably always will.”

But his struggle wasn’t over. In 2018, then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office argued that while the junk science argument was enough to set Gavitt free, it wasn’t enough to get him paid.

Last year a judge sided with the AG’s office, saying Gavitt needed to present “clear and convincing evidence” that he didn’t kill his family.

Gavitt called it a “slap in the face.”

According to Gavitt’s attorney J. Paul Janes of Grand Rapids, Schuette’s staff refused to even meet with Gavitt’s representation. It wasn’t until June of this year that the staff of the new attorney general Nessel invited Janes to meet. 

“They had a sit-down with us, we have a three-hour meeting, I lay the facts out and they agree, ‘You’re correct, Mr. Gavin innocent of this charge and the evidence proves it,’” Janes recalled Thursday. 

Two months after that meeting, Nessel’s office announced the state would compensate Gavitt with more than $1.3 million. 

“No system is perfect and the government’s public recognition of the wrongs which occurred in this matter help foster a healing process and assures Michiganders that the government — regardless of fault — will take action to remedy any harm to its residents,” Nessel said in a Thursday statement.

“They knew that we were going to go to trial on this matter, which was scheduled at the end of this month. They would not prevail so they resolved the case,” Janes said. 

He said his 61-year-old client plans to work several more years and then retire with the money helping to make up for the 25 years that he could not contribute to his retirement savings and Social Security. 

“More than anything else, David is appreciative of the fact that the government finally acknowledged they got it wrong,” Janes said. “I just wish earlier for this gentleman.” 

Gavitt’s payment was calculated based on the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act guidelines, which calls for $50,000 for each year an exhonoree spent in prison.

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