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New Fire Science Evidence Overturns Murder Conviction

From Frontline:

Almost three decades ago, David Lee Gavitt was convicted of starting the fire that killed his wife and two children. He was sentenced to life in prison.

This week, Gavitt, now 54, was set free based on new scientific evidence proving that the fire was accidental.

Gavitt’s is the most recent case that highlights a shift in thinking about what causes a fire and how what once seemed like telltale signs of arson can actually be the opposite. Last week, a Chicago-area man was released after prosecutors dismissed arson-murder charges against him stemming from a 1984 fire. And Ernest Ray Willis of Texas was exonerated in 2004 after spending almost 20 years on death row, based in part on evidence presented by renown fire scientist Gerald Hurst.

Gavitt’s case involves both a crucial error in forensic science and the debunking of myths that have been part of arson investigation for decades: A lab erroneously concluded that a carpet sample contained evidence of gasoline, and investigators assumed that a fire that burned quickly as the one in the Gavitt household must have been intentionally set. We now know that because of a scientific phenomena called “flashover,” a fire can burn hot and fast without being set on purpose and can leave patterns on a surface that can be mistaken as pour patterns.

   “In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire at the Gavitt residence was intentionally set,” wrote John Lentini, an expert in fire science, in an affidavit presented to a judge last fall by the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, who worked extensively on Gavitt’s case.

Lentini and Hearst are two of the key scientists who helped change the long-held assumptions about how fires burn by starting and studying their own. “The fire investigation community largely consists of people who are firemen. They’re not scientists. They don’t have any formal scientific training,” Lentini told FRONTLINE.  “Extinguishing a fire and investigating a fire involve two different skill sets and two different mindsets.”

Both men have voiced their expert opinions on questionable arson cases in the past, most notably that of Cameron Todd Willingham. Featured in our 2010 film Death By Fire, Willingham’s story strangely echoeos Gavitt’s case: He says he woke up to his house on fire and was able to escape but unable to save his family inside. (Witnesses to the Willingham fire claim they never saw him try and go back into the house; however, neighbors had to restrain Gavitt from doing so).

But the two men’s stories have one important divergence: Willingham was executed in 2004, despite a last-minute appeal by his lawyer that included analysis from Hurst that found no evidence of arson. Investigations into whether Texas executed an innocent man have stalled, though last month a judge involved in one of the terminated inquiries announced that he would have posthumously exonerated Willingham.

Gavitt, meanwhile, spent his first day of freedom visiting the grave of his wife and two daughters. According to the Innocence Clinic’s Dave Moran, more than a dozen of Gavitt’s family members met him there to welcome him back.


Because Everything Else in the IL Budget is Absolutely Vital

From Frontline:

In a scandal that’s unraveled over decades, a longtime Chicago police commander and some of his subordinates allegedly tortured more than 100 people, all of them black and some of them teenagers into confessing to murders and other crimes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, after pursuing only a fraction of the cases, the commission set up to investigate the abuse victims’ complaints is set to close later this month due to budget cuts.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission was established in 2009 after reports emerged that Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander, and some of his subordinates had beaten, suffocated and in a few cases, submitted suspects to electrical shocks to force confessions.

David Thomas, the inquiry’s executive director, said Wednesday that he’d been given 48 hours notice of the loss of funding. The budget for the first year was $150,000, but it was set to rise to $235,000 this year. “I’ve heard it was a question of priorities and allocation of money,” he said.

The budget for the state will be about $24 billion next year.

When Red Flags Are Ignored

From the Washington Post:

A former Culpeper, Va., police officer charged with killing a Sunday school teacher was hired despite the objections of superiors who said his excessive drinking and attitude made him a poor choice, prosecution filings show. …

Harmon-Wright, a five-year veteran of the force, was hired in 2006. During a background check, Harmon-Wright told police officials that he had been disciplined for excessive drinking in the Marine Crops and had driven under the influence of alcohol three months before his interview, according to prosecution filings. It’s not clear why Harmon-Wright was hired despite the objections of two police officials.

Bethany Sullivan, Harmon-Wright’s mother and an administrative assistant to the former Culpeper police chief, has been charged with forging Harmon-Wright’s entrance exam for the Town of Culpeper and one of his annual reviews.

Harmon-Wright was disciplined in connection with a 2011 incident in which he chased a 15-year-old boy after a suspicious-person report, prosecution filings show. The officer started banging on the door of a home after receiving a tip that the boy lived there.

When a woman answered, Harmon-Wright demanded that she leave, prosecutors said in the filing. Harmon-Wright entered the house and brandished his gun in the face of the woman’s 18-year-old son, according to the filing.

It turned out that the boy he was chasing was not in the home and had not committed a crime, but was on his way to school, according to the filings.

Previous coverage here.

Police Union Used Felons to Gather Signatures in Ballot Drive

From the Washington Examiner:

Montgomery County’s police union used felons, including a fugitive and a man convicted of forgery, to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would kill legislation reducing police collective bargaining rights, court documents show.

The county cites the Fraternal Order of Police’s use of felons among reasons why at least 6,700 of the 34,828 signatures validated by the County Board of Elections are insufficient to put the measure, protecting police officers’ ability to negotiate any management decision, on the November ballot.

The felons were responsible for collecting signatures and certifying they were gathered legally.

“The notion that a felon who under Maryland law would be prohibited from voting in an election, and who at any time was at the risk of arrest by the very individuals on whose behalf he was circulating the petition, would be responsible for preventing fraud flies in the face of common sense and is truly laughable,” attorneys for the county wrote in documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

One felon, Keith Gregory Moore, of Grand Rapids, Mich., was convicted of forgery, fraud, aggravated assault and home invasion, the court filing shows. 

Another petition circulator, Jessie James Rowe, of Kalamazoo, Mich., was a fugitive felon at the time he was gathering signatures — and still is — the document says.

National Police Misconduct Daily NewsFeed Recap 06-07-12

Here are the 8 reports of police misconduct tracked for Thursday, June 7, 2012:

  • An Edmonds, Washington police officer was arrested on allegations of sexual misconduct involving a woman he detained after she jaywalked
  • Chicago, Illinois police officers are being accused of excessive force after using a stun gun on a pregnant woman.  Police arrested the woman and her boyfriend after an argument over a parking ticket.  
  • A Melbourne, Florida police officer has been suspended without pay pending an ongoing criminal investigation.  The officer has been off the job since May 26 and already turned in his badge, weapon, and patrol car
  • Old Forge, Pennsylvania Police Chief Larry Semenza is being investigated by the FBI.  The probe was sparked after an alleged victim reported a sexual relationship with Chief Semenza from 2004-2007
  • Fullerton, California cop charged with the Kelly Thomas murder has been accused in another case of assault.  A disabled man claims he was thrown to the ground and stomped during his arrest last year by the officer
  • New York Supreme Court judge claims he was struck by a police officer during a chaotic scene in Queens.  The judge said the officer rushed forward and delivered a sharp blow to the his throat, which sent him reeling back and doubled over in pain
  • Former Ocala, Florida police officer was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $874,000 in restitution for helping conspirators in a tax fraud scheme
  • A Hingham, Massachusetts officer was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.  The officer has been put on paid leave after he was arrested on four counts of domestic assault and battery

The Stop and Frisk Scandal

I have an article over at The Crime Report concerning the stop and frisk policy of the New York City Police Department. 


By way of background, a “stop” is an involuntary citizen-police encounter—but it is an encounter that has not yet escalated to the point of a full blown arrest. 

In other words, the person has not been handcuffed and taken into custody, but neither is he free to walk away.  Often in full view of neighbors or passersby, the person may have to “assume the position” by placing his outstretched arms against a wall or the hood of a police car; or even lay down, prostrate, on the sidewalk. 

It can be a degrading and humiliating event to endure….

There have been two important developments concerning the stop-and-frisk doctrine.  The first concerns the absence of a remedy in the situations where the police violate a person’s constitutional rights.  That is, what happens if the cops just whimsically  stop someone, frisk his garments, and pepper him with questions for 5-10 minutes? 

Mere curiosity as to whether the person might be holding some marijuana is not enough of a valid basis for a frisk, at least in theory. 

What’s a poor person, who is totally innocent going to do in situations where the police are just fishing around?  If there’s no injury, is it realistic to expect poor residents to go meet with an attorney?  Even if that happened, most attorneys would turn the potential client down quickly. 

An unjustified detention that lasted only a few minutes?  They would likely respond that the case just isn’t worth the time and expense of litigation. 

With no practical remedy for innocent persons stopped and frisked, there is not much of a downside for police to skirt the rules. So they have….

Well-to-do Americans do not realize it yet, but their right against unreasonable detentions is being trampled.  They are oblivious because it’s been the minorities in the poorer sections of the city who have borne the brunt of expanding police powers.

The stop and frisk policy is a low-visibility type of police misconduct.  On paper, in theory, the tactic can comply with the rules laid out by the courts, but those rules are also violated frequently with no consequences for the officers involved.  

For more about the stop & frisk tactic and how it has undermined the legal protection against false arrests, see my paper on that subject, “We Own the Night.”


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