The Indiana Court of Appeals heard arguments July 13 in the post-conviction relief case of a woman convicted of intentionally setting a fire that killed her young son, leading to what she says was a wrongful conviction and imprisonment 15 years ago.
Attorneys on the case of Kristine Bunch v. State, No. 16A05-1007-PC-439, appeared before a three-judge panel inside the Indiana Supreme Court’s courtroom to decide whether the Greensburg woman should receive a new trial on the grounds that new evidence shows the science used originally to prove she committed the 1996 arson inside her home was debunked as “junk science.”
A Decatur County jury convicted Bunch in 1996 of felony murder and arson, and she was sentenced to 60 years in prison, though on direct appeal the Indiana Supreme Court tossed her arson conviction because of double jeopardy and only the felony murder conviction remains. Last year, Decatur Circuit Judge John A. Westhafer denied a PCR petition she filed in 2006 based on new evidence.
Ron Safer from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law represented Bunch at the arguments, saying that the evolution of arson science since her conviction in the late 1990s has changed and that the fire was actually an accident, not arson as the state claimed.
Prosecutors said Bunch poured kerosene in her son’s bedroom and the living room of their mobile home and lit it on fire. They pointed to inconsistent statements Bunch made about the fire in the days following the incident. Safer told the appellate judges that fire investigation has changed since the mid-1990s, and investigators now have a better idea of how fires work. He also noted that Bunch’s 3-year-old son died of smoke inhalation, not burns, as would have been the case if he had died from a fire being set in his bedroom.
A new piece of evidence includes an expert who says the fire was not arson and the cause can be proven now to be undetermined, not specifically arson the way the state outlined it. However, Judge Westhafer found that expert testimony not credible to grant any post-conviction relief, and that raised concerns for the Court of Appeals panel. The appellate judges questioned their role in reviewing the lower judge’s decision, from his credibility determination to what the record shows might have led him to make that determination.
Safer also told the judges that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms did not disclose to the defense a lab report showing no trace of kerosene in the boy’s bedroom, despite the investigators’ contention that part of the fire had been set there, Safer said. That was a Brady violation, even if the state prosecutors didn’t have it, and warrants a new trial.
Chief Judge Margret Robb and Judges Edward Najam and Terry Crone wondered at what point developing science becomes “new,” but Deputy Attorney General Ian McLean argued that the scientific advances claimed by Bunch’s counsel were exaggerated and too inconclusive to change the outcome of the trial. •
Rehearing "Aiming for exoneration" IL Sept. 2-15, 2009