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Aiming for exoneration

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Justice in Question

Kristine M. Bunch has a dream of becoming a lawyer, to be a voice for women who don’t have one.

Before that can happen, though, she has to overcome an obstacle that stands in the way of not only a legal education but her very freedom. She has to prove her innocence and overturn an arson and felony murder conviction for a fatal fire that killed her 3-year-old son which led to her spending the past 13 years in prison.

Kristine Bunch

The 35-year-old mother is serving a 60-year felony murder sentence, one she contends is the result of a wrongful conviction caused by faulty science used by fire investigators. An inmate at the Indiana State Women’s Prison on the eastside of Indianapolis, Bunch is offender No. 966069 and has achieved what her attorneys and prison officials describe as remarkable for anyone behind bars: she’s a degree-holding cosmetologist, mini-marathoner, service-dog trainer, and ministry volunteer, not to mention a certified paralegal and the first female inmate to ever take the LSAT.

While she’s proud of her accomplishments inside, those aren’t her main focus. Instead, she’s on a mission to prove she shouldn’t be behind bars in the first place. The odds aren’t in her favor. She’s a convicted felon and is no longer innocent until proven guilty; rather she’s guilty and must regain her innocence. But serving as a beacon before her, Bunch focuses on the fact that wrongful convictions are becoming more common, proven nationally as science evolves and flaws in the legal system become more apparent.

More than 230 people have been exonerated nationally, and Bunch hopes to add her name to that roster with the help of an Indianapolis attorney and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Her post-conviction appeal in Decatur County articulates that the science used to determine the fire’s cause was faulty and that it’s a discredited method proving to be a significant factor in a growing number of wrongful conviction cases nationwide. The appeal represents the first Hoosier case to touch on this issue, and if she proves her innocence she has the potential to be an additional name on Indiana’s exoneration list.

“Kristine is a model prisoner who’s earned her college degree while in prison and is anxious to be released in order to gain custody of her other child and eventually attend law school,” said Illinois attorney and law professor Karen Daniel, who is representing Bunch on behalf of the center. “It’s important that her story be told.”
 

The fire

Her nightmare began June 30, 1995.

In the early morning, the then-21-year-old mother awoke to flames and smoke in her mother’s trailer home in Greensburg. Her 3-year-old son, Tony, had been asleep in another bedroom. In published letters recalling her memories, Bunch described running down the hallway through thick smoke to her son’s room, seeing him trapped inside where he stood on the bed and calling for his mom. She tried to throw a blanket on the fire but couldn’t get inside. She ran outside to find help but not before getting mild burns herself.

Six days later, Bunch was arrested and charged with both arson and felony murder. She pleaded not guilty and went through a jury trial in February 1996. Prosecutors initially sought life without parole, but the jury unanimously recommended against that penalty, and the trial court imposed the maximum of 60 years.

Danial/RicksLooking back on the trial experience, Bunch said she was a naïve at the time. She was four months pregnant with her second son – now 13 – and was still grieving the loss of Tony and in a blur during the trial. The jury convicted her on both arson and murder charges, and she initially received 50 years for the arson and 60 years for the murder, though the trial judge merged the two at sentencing.
“I don’t know if my lawyer did a good job or not,” she said about her appointed trial attorney from Greensburg. “He told me that my best interests were at heart, and I trusted that. But I really don’t know what happened to say if that’s true or not. All I know is that I ended up in here.”

In appealing to the Indiana Supreme Court on direct appeal, Bunch said she had virtually no contact with her appointed appellate lawyer at the time. She received the brief in prison once it was filed. The lawyer also sent the June 9, 1998, appellate decision affirming her felony murder conviction and 60-year sentence. The court also remanded with direction to vacate the arson conviction because of double jeopardy – a person can’t be sentenced for both a felony murder and the underlying felony.

“After the appeal came back, I thought nothing else could be done,” she said. “That’s what I thought was the end.”
 

New hope

After years in prison, Bunch eventually learned about post-conviction relief and that reinvigorated her hope that more could be done. She contacted an author who’d written about wrongful convictions and female inmates before, and that resulted in Bunch sharing her story for the 2001 book, “Letters from Prison: Voices of Women Murderers.”

Researching post-conviction relief in the prison’s law library, Bunch learned she’d need to find her own attorney and fellow inmates connected her with Indianapolis attorney Hilary Bowe Ricks. She had to work three prison jobs to pay off the payment plan they reached, and now Ricks is working the case pro bono.

Through a prison pen pal, Bunch learned about the wrongful conviction clinic at Northwestern’s law school and faxed her trial transcripts to them to review. That was almost a year ago, and her attorneys filed a petition for PCR in Decatur Circuit Court in November. The non-profit Innocence Project based in New York has also gotten involved in the case. A post-conviction hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20, and at that time her attorneys expect for the judge to consider the evidence and ultimately take the matter under advisement to determine whether any relief is warranted. 

Daniel said that Northwestern’s clinic has seen many arson cases in recent years where junk science has played a role, but to date this case is the first litigation initiated on the issue.

Ricks said she also hasn’t had any cases where this has come up, but she expects it to become more frequent.

“This is a very specialized knowledge, and there are many, many cases where they’ve found out now that, through better science, the previous science determining arson is faulty,” Ricks said. “One of the biggest things that struck me when reading the transcripts is that you just don’t jump to an arson conclusion within an hour … . You have to rule out everything else and then come to that decision. That wasn’t done here.”

In Bunch’s case, investigators relied on several factors such as blaze temperature and development speed, irregular burn patterns, low burning, and holes in the floor to determine the fire was likely an arson started in Tony’s bedroom. But advances now show many of those indicators are myths, her attorneys say.

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a congressionally mandated report finding serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and called for major reforms. Part of that report says fire investigators have in many cases routinely relied on indicators that were common at the time but have since become outdated and discredited by scientific research. Bottom line: Fires once thought to be arsons are now being proven to be the result of some other factor.

The question that must be considered in Bunch’s case and any others raising this issue is whether this change in forensic science standards would have made a difference at trial. Bunch and her attorneys all believe the answer is yes.

“Only recently, I started believing that there’s a chance I could get out before I’m 50-something years old,” she said. “There’s a reason for hope.”
 

Offender No. 966069

Until that possible PCR arrives or her sentence runs out, Bunch lives in a complex with about 200 other women inmates, living in a military-barracks style room where each side has 22 women. Her Department of Correction number is as much a part of her identity as her given name.

She’s earned her general educational development diploma through tutoring, and earned an associate’s degree in cosmetology through Ball State University. Bunch helps boost the moods of her fellow inmates with hair or nail services. She also participates in a ministry through the prison, trains a 20-month-old Labradoodle named Monon to be a service dog for the disabled, and practices for a 13.1-mile prison-track mini-marathon in late September. Bunch also took an eight-month Blackstone course to get certified as a paralegal. In June she took the LSAT and became the first woman in the women’s prison to have ever done so.

“A lot of women in here don’t have a voice and can’t afford an attorney,” she said. “That’s the person I want to be: someone who can give them a voice.”

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  1. California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) End of Year Report 2014. (page 13) Under the current system many local registering agencies are challenged just keeping up with registration paperwork. It takes an hour or more to process each registrant, the majority of whom are low risk offenders. As a result law enforcement cannot monitor higher risk offenders more intensively in the community due to the sheer numbers on the registry. Some of the consequences of lengthy and unnecessary registration requirements actually destabilize the life’s of registrants and those -such as families- whose lives are often substantially impacted. Such consequences are thought to raise levels of known risk factors while providing no discernible benefit in terms of community safety. The full report is available online at. http://www.casomb.org/index.cfm?pid=231 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs United States of America. The overall conclusion is that Megan’s law has had no demonstrated effect on sexual offenses in New Jersey, calling into question the justification for start-up and operational costs. Megan’s Law has had no effect on time to first rearrest for known sex offenders and has not reduced sexual reoffending. Neither has it had an impact on the type of sexual reoffense or first-time sexual offense. The study also found that the law had not reduced the number of victims of sexual offenses. The full report is available online at. https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/publications/abstract.aspx? ID=247350 The University of Chicago Press for The Booth School of Business of the University of Chicago and The University of Chicago Law School Article DOI: 10.1086/658483 Conclusion. The data in these three data sets do not strongly support the effectiveness of sex offender registries. The national panel data do not show a significant decrease in the rate of rape or the arrest rate for sexual abuse after implementation of a registry via the Internet. The BJS data that tracked individual sex offenders after their release in 1994 did not show that registration had a significantly negative effect on recidivism. And the D.C. crime data do not show that knowing the location of sex offenders by census block can help protect the locations of sexual abuse. This pattern of noneffectiveness across the data sets does not support the conclusion that sex offender registries are successful in meeting their objectives of increasing public safety and lowering recidivism rates. The full report is available online at. http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/658483 These are not isolated conclusions but are the same outcomes in the majority of conclusions and reports on this subject from multiple government agencies and throughout the academic community. People, including the media and other organizations should not rely on and reiterate the statements and opinions of the legislators or other people as to the need for these laws because of the high recidivism rates and the high risk offenders pose to the public which simply is not true and is pure hyperbole and fiction. They should rely on facts and data collected and submitted in reports from the leading authorities and credible experts in the fields such as the following. California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) Sex offender recidivism rate for a new sex offense is 0.8% (page 30) The full report is available online at http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Adult_Research_Branch/Research_Documents/2014_Outcome_Evaluation_Report_7-6-2015.pdf California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) (page 38) Sex offender recidivism rate for a new sex offense is 1.8% The full report is available online at. http://www.google.com/url?sa= t&source=web&cd=1&ved= 0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F% 2Fwww.cdcr.ca.gov%2FAdult_ Research_Branch%2FResearch_ documents%2FOutcome_ evaluation_Report_2013.pdf&ei= C9dSVePNF8HfoATX-IBo&usg=AFQjCNE9I6ueHz-o2mZUnuxLPTyiRdjDsQ Bureau of Justice Statistics 5 PERCENT OF SEX OFFENDERS REARRESTED FOR ANOTHER SEX CRIME WITHIN 3 YEARS OF PRISON RELEASE WASHINGTON, D.C. Within 3 years following their 1994 state prison release, 5.3 percent of sex offenders (men who had committed rape or sexual assault) were rearrested for another sex crime, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The full report is available online at. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/rsorp94pr.cfm Document title; A Model of Static and Dynamic Sex Offender Risk Assessment Author: Robert J. McGrath, Michael P. Lasher, Georgia F. Cumming Document No.: 236217 Date Received: October 2011 Award Number: 2008-DD-BX-0013 Findings: Study of 759 adult male offenders under community supervision Re-arrest rate: 4.6% after 3-year follow-up The sexual re-offense rates for the 746 released in 2005 are much lower than what many in the public have been led to expect or believe. These low re-offense rates appear to contradict a conventional wisdom that sex offenders have very high sexual re-offense rates. The full report is available online at. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236217.pdf Document Title: SEX OFFENDER SENTENCING IN WASHINGTON STATE: RECIDIVISM RATES BY: Washington State Institute For Public Policy. A study of 4,091 sex offenders either released from prison or community supervision form 1994 to 1998 and examined for 5 years Findings: Sex Crime Recidivism Rate: 2.7% Link to Report: http://www.oncefallen.com/files/Washington_SO_Recid_2005.pdf Document Title: Indiana’s Recidivism Rates Decline for Third Consecutive Year BY: Indiana Department of Correction 2009. The recidivism rate for sex offenders returning on a new sex offense was 1.05%, one of the lowest in the nation. In a time when sex offenders continue to face additional post-release requirements that often result in their return to prison for violating technical rules such as registration and residency restrictions, the instances of sex offenders returning to prison due to the commitment of a new sex crime is extremely low. Findings: sex offenders returning on a new sex offense was 1.05% Link to Report: http://www.in.gov/idoc/files/RecidivismRelease.pdf Once again, These are not isolated conclusions but are the same outcomes in the majority of reports on this subject from multiple government agencies and throughout the academic community. No one can doubt that child sexual abuse is traumatic and devastating. The question is not whether the state has an interest in preventing such harm, but whether current laws are effective in doing so. Megan’s law is a failure and is destroying families and their children’s lives and is costing tax payers millions upon millions of dollars. The following is just one example of the estimated cost just to implement SORNA which many states refused to do. From Justice Policy Institute. Estimated cost to implement SORNA Here are some of the estimates made in 2009 expressed in 2014 current dollars: California, $66M; Florida, $34M; Illinois, $24M; New York, $35M; Pennsylvania, $22M; Texas, $44M. In 2014 dollars, Virginia’s estimate for implementation was $14M, and the annual operating cost after that would be $10M. For the US, the total is $547M. That’s over half a billion dollars – every year – for something that doesn’t work. http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/08-08_FAC_SORNACosts_JJ.pdf. Attempting to use under-reporting to justify the existence of the registry is another myth, or a lie. This is another form of misinformation perpetrated by those who either have a fiduciary interest in continuing the unconstitutional treatment of a disfavored group or are seeking to justify their need for punishment for people who have already paid for their crime by loss of their freedom through incarceration and are now attempting to reenter society as honest citizens. When this information is placed into the public’s attention by naive media then you have to wonder if the media also falls into one of these two groups that are not truly interested in reporting the truth. Both of these groups of people that have that type of mentality can be classified as vigilantes, bullies, or sociopaths, and are responsible for the destruction of our constitutional values and the erosion of personal freedoms in this country. I think the media or other organizations need to do a in depth investigation into the false assumptions and false data that has been used to further these laws and to research all the collateral damages being caused by these laws and the unconstitutional injustices that are occurring across the country. They should include these injustices in their report so the public can be better informed on what is truly happening in this country on this subject. Thank you for your time.

  2. Freedom as granted in the Constitution cannot be summarily disallowed without Due Process. Unable to to to the gym, church, bowling alley? What is this 1984 level nonsense? Congrats to Brian for having the courage to say that this was enough! and Congrats to the ACLU on the win!

  3. America's hyper-phobia about convicted sex offenders must end! Politicians must stop pandering to knee-jerk public hysteria. And the public needs to learn the facts. Research by the California Sex Offender Management Board as shown a recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders of less than 1%. Less than 1%! Furthermore, research shows that by year 17 after their conviction, a convicted sex offender is no more likely to commit a new sex offense than any other member of the public. Put away your torches and pitchforks. Get the facts. Stop hysteria.

  4. He was convicted 23 years ago. How old was he then? He probably was a juvenile. People do stupid things, especially before their brain is fully developed. Why are we continuing to punish him in 2016? If he hasn't re-offended by now, it's very, very unlikely he ever will. He paid for his mistake sufficiently. Let him live his life in peace.

  5. This year, Notre Dame actually enrolled an equal amount of male and female students.

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