Opinion: Fix forensic science to aid criminal justice reform

David Moran, Imran Syed and Megan Richardson

Late last year, Michigan’s criminal justice system reached a sad milestone: According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 100 men and women have been exonerated in the state since 1989 after serving time in prison for crimes they did not commit. Michigan is the 10th most populous state, but it ranks fifth for the most exonerations.

One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions is flawed forensic science. Of Michigan’s 102 proven wrongful convictions, at least 21 resulted from seemingly reliable forensic evidence that was found, years later, to be somewhere between misleading and outright fraudulent. It is time Michigan joins other states by creating a forensic science commission to help ensure that only reliable science is used to put people behind bars.

David Gavitt’s case is a good example of why Michigan needs forensic science reform. Gavitt was convicted in 1986 of arson and three counts of felony murder after his wife and two young daughters died in a fire at their home in Ionia. Michigan State Police fire investigators testified that certain physical markers — like burn patterns on the floor and walls, the heat and intensity of the fire, and the presence of “alligatoring” and “crazed glass” — meant that the fire involved an accelerant like gasoline. Moreover, an MSP chemist testified that chemical testing indicated the presence of gasoline in the fire debris.

David Gavitt, 61, of Ionia, spent 26 years in prison, from 1986 to 2012, before a county prosecutor agreed that the arson evidence behind his conviction no longer was credible.

Based on those two lines of expert testimony, the prosecution argued the fire was arson, and Gavitt the only possible arsonist. A jury convicted Gavitt, who was sentenced to life in prison. Unfortunately, the MSP experts were relying on junk science, and their conclusions were flat-out wrong.

Starting in 1992, national standards for fire investigation began to recognize that the physical markers that the MSP experts had relied on in the Gavitt case were actually just myths, which were easily disproven in controlled scientific testing. In 2010, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School began looking into Gavitt’s case. Upon consulting leading fire experts, the clinic learned that there was absolutely no evidence that the Gavitt fire was arson at all.

In all likelihood, the fire was a tragic accident, made all the more tragic by the wrongful conviction of a grieving father. Twenty-six years later, to his credit, the Ionia County prosecutor agreed to review the case and eventually agreed to Gavitt’s release: He had served 26 years in prison for a crime that never happened. 

Michigan should have its own forensic science commission, an independent body of experts to investigate potential problems and recommend reforms. Such a commission would go a long way in restoring confidence in forensic science and law enforcement statewide.

Sens. Tom Barrett and Stephanie Chang have introduced legislation that would create such a commission and require forensic science laboratories and providers to meet national accreditation standards in order to practice in Michigan.

Let’s not wait another decade — or for more people to suffer the injustices that Gavitt did — before taking the steps necessary to improve forensic science and criminal justice in our state. 

David Moran is a clinical professor and the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

Imran Syed is clinical assistant professor and assistant director of the MIC.

Megan Richardson is a clinical fellow at the MIC.