Sixth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Civil Rights Action Based Upon Wrongful Conviction in Arson/Murder Case

Judge Holding Documents

In 1986, David Gavitt was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of arson and felony murder stemming from a fire that took the life of his wife and two daughters. In 2012, the state court granted Gavitt’s unopposed motion for relief from judgment due to newly discovered evidence based on advancements in fire science. The judgment was vacated, charges dismissed, and Gavitt was released from jail. Gavitt later brought a civil rights action against numerous city and county entities, prosecutors, police officers, and investigators that participated in the prosecution against him. He claimed the defendants intentionally misrepresented evidence and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, thus violating his due process rights. All defendants moved to dismiss the pleadings and all but one of the motions were dismissed ...
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In a Split Decision, Seventh Circuit Affirms District Court’s Denial of Habeas Corpus in Arson/Murder Case

In 1993, Glenn Patrick Bradford, a then Evansville, Indiana police officer, was convicted of murder and arson and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Bradford filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court, but the Southern District of Indiana denied review last November. In Bradford v. Brown, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 14260, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Bradford’s request. In a factually rich opinion, Judge Posner, joined by Judge Kanne, found that Bradford failed to present sufficient evidence to establish that he was innocent of arson and murder and that his original defense counsel was ineffective. Judge Hamilton dissented arguing that the state did not present enough evidence to demonstrate that Bradford set the fire that killed his ex-lover. Judge Hamilton further stated that defense counsel’s ...
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District Court in South Carolina Allows Parties’ Experts to Testify in Design Defect Case Involving Heater’s Ignition of Woman’s Clothing

531050703 On August 10, 2016, the District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled that experts retained by a woman who suffered severe burns after a propane heater ignited her clothing could testify under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, Federal Rule of Evidence 403 and the Daubert standard regarding the origin and cause of the fire, the defectiveness of the heater’s design, and how an alternative design would have prevented the incident. Likewise, the district court ruled that an expert retained by the defendant manufacturer and retailer to rebut the conclusions of the plaintiff’s experts could also testify. In Marshall v. Lowe’s Home Ctrs., LLC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105317 (D.S.C. Aug. 10, 2016), the plaintiff situated a “Thermoheat Propane Tank Top Construction Heater, Model No. TT15CL” near her workbench ...
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Cook County Prosecutors Agree Chicago Man Convicted of Arson in 1996 Should Get New Trial Due to Evolution in Fire Science

Two decades after Adam Gray was convicted of setting a fire that killed two people in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, Cook County prosecutors agree that he deserves a new trial because advancements in fire science have “partially invalidated” expert testimony crucial to his conviction. In Gray’s case, police and prosecutors alleged that in March of 1993 the then 14 year-old became angry with a girl who rejected him and retaliated by igniting an accelerant he poured on the back porch of the home where she resided. While the girl and her parents escaped the fire, two second-floor tenants died. At trial, prosecutors presented testimony from two fire investigators who stated that they discovered charring and deep burn patterns in the area of origin consistent with the use of an accelerant. ...
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Fire Chief’s Testimony Ruled Admissible in Arson Case Despite Concession He’s Unqualified to Determine Cause of All Fires

iStock_000001627771_Large A defendant sought to have his arson conviction overturned, arguing that the justice presiding at his trial committed a reversible error in permitting one of the state’s witnesses to give opinion testimony. In State v. Barnett (Case No. 1984 Me. LEXIS 784), the defendant claimed that a fire chief from the responding fire department should not have been permitted to testify that, while investigating the origin of a fire at the defendant’s home, he called in the state fire marshal’s office to assist because he thought the fire was “suspicious.” The defendant contended that the chief’s testimony contained an expert opinion and therefore violated the court’s earlier ruling that the chief was not competent to testify as an expert. Regarding his credentials, the fire chief testified that he served as ...
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New Jersey Superior Court Rules the Nose is Not Enough for Arson Conviction

iStock_000054736346 On July 11, 2016, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed the conviction of an alleged arsonist, vacated her sentence, and remanded the case for a new trial. State v. Satoris, No. A-1079-13T1, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1605 (Super. Ct. App. Div. July 11, 2016). In 2013, defendant Cheryl Satoris was convicted of third-degree arson. She appealed the conviction, arguing that she was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erroneously permitted the state to introduce evidence concerning a canine’s detection of an accelerant on evidence removed from her home. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey agreed with the defendant, finding that the trial court disregarded the guidelines of NFPA 921, which state “in order for the presence of absence of an ignitable ...
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District Court Allows Expert Testimony Attributing Cause of a House Fire to Careless Smoking

78397252 On May 20, 2016, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that an insurer’s fire expert could testify regarding a tenant’s smoking being the cause of a residential fire under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert standard. In Allstate Ins. Co. v. Anderson, No. 15-2651, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66481 (E.D. Pa. May 20, 2016), the defendant tenant stated that he smoked a cigarette in the basement bedroom of a residence insured by Allstate and placed it in a can on a table near the foot of the bed the morning of the fire. A baseboard heater was operating in the area of the bed during this time. The tenant then left the residence to go to a corner store, returned his bedroom, and then went upstairs to eat ...
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The Importance of the Product Defense Attorney at the Fire Scene: Part Four

80831090 Part 4 – Attendance at the Fire Scene –Post Scene Exam Defense Planning The attendance of a product defense attorney at the fire scene can greatly assist in the defense of a fire loss. Of course, that benefit is only fully realized when an attorney is sufficiently prepared and takes a proactive role when at the scene. If a client chooses to send an attorney to a fire scene, the attorney should make the most of that opportunity and gather as much information as possible to assist in the case. This series of blog posts will expound on the importance of preparation prior to a scene exam, attendance at the scene exam, and post scene exam activities. You have now completed your investigation of the fire scene. Before you actually ...
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$150M Verdict against Jeep Manufacturer — Cut to $40M — Heads to the Georgia Court of Appeals

Gavel and money isolated on white In Fiat Chrysler Automobiles v. Walden, No. A16A1285, Fiat Chrysler is appealing the trial court’s final judgment on liability and damages in a case involving a high-speed rear-end collision that punctured the gas tank of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, causing it to explode. At trial, the family of a 4-year-old boy killed in the crash argued that the design of the jeep was defective and dangerous in that its gas tank was located in the crush-zone between the rear bumper and axle. The family also presented evidence that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had previously requested of Chrysler a recall of more than two million vehicles based upon the higher likelihood of fire because of the position of the gas tank, but Chrysler refused. At the conclusion of ...
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Verdict in Favor of Defendant Fire-Suppression System Manufacturer in Yacht Fire Case Affirmed

480688004 On May 26, 2016, the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the defendant in a products liability suit involving a 2011 fire that started in the engine room of a 67-foot wooden yacht. In Sudderth v. Mariner Elec. Co., 16-5 ( La. App. 5 Cir 05/26/16) the plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer of an automatic fire-suppression system alleging that the system was defective, unreasonably dangerous in design, construction, and did not perform as advertised. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the suppression system, which was designed to protect unoccupied engine compartments by discharging when the surrounding temperature reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit, did not discharge during the fire resulting in significant fire damage to the yacht. At trial, the plaintiff’s fire expert George ...
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