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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. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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