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. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.