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

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 by the district court. The plaintiff appealed the dismissals and the remaining defendant appealed the denial of dismissal.

In Gavitt v. Born, No. 15-2136/2434, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16181 (6th Cir. Sep. 1, 2016), the Sixth Circuit dismissed the remaining defendant’s appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction. The court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all other pleadings. In so ruling, the court held that, while there was no doubt that Gavitt was convicted and imprisoned based on evidence now known to be unreliable, the defendants’ reliance on generally accepted fire investigation methods and standards of the time did not constitute a violation of Gavitt’s due process rights. In that regard, because the officials did not know that methods utilized in this 1980’s fire investigation would later be revealed to be flawed, they could not be held to have intentionally misrepresented evidence and conspired to deprive him of his rights.

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