Lana Canen and Kristine Bunch insisted they were innocent for years after each was convicted of murder by Indiana juries. Both women were freed in 2012, but their paths to exoneration were starkly different.
“When a prosecutor knows that a person is not responsible, that prosecutor has a duty to take action because of the interest of justice,” said Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill. As prosecutor since 2003, his office won a conviction against Canen, and then years later joined defense efforts to free her from a 55-year sentence when new evidence came to light.
Canen’s case illustrates a trend reported by the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. In a report this month, the registry concluded that prosecutors or police last year initiated or cooperated in more than half of the 63 known homicide and sex-crime exonerations last year, a record high.
Canen was convicted in 2005 of killing 94-year-old Helen Sailor, largely on the strength of fingerprints on a pill bottle in Sailor’s home that authorities testified were Canen’s. Her conviction was affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court, but in post-conviction relief, defense attorney Cara Shaefer Wieneke said a new expert re-examined that crucial evidence and concluded Canen’s prints didn’t match.
The defense review was provided to Hill’s office, and the state witness, “to his credit, at least made the determination he had been wrong about what he had testified,” Hill said.
As a PCR hearing neared, Wieneke got a call “out of the blue” from Hill’s office. “I never would have known any of that,” she said. “After that point, they really took the lead in terms of getting things in front of a judge.”
Wieneke said prosecutors joined a defense motion to vacate Canen’s conviction in November, and Canen walked out of prison the next day. “It was a really great turning point that they were willing to jump on board,” Wieneke said.
Bunch’s experience, however, reflects a continuing reluctance among some authorities to reconsider exculpatory evidence and claims of actual innocence.
Convicted of setting a fire in her mobile home she shared with her 3-year-old son Anthony in Decatur County, Bunch professed her innocence for more than 17 years.
Key to evidence against Bunch was testimony from witnesses including an ATF agent that accelerants were used to start the fire. The agency, though, failed to disclose documents that contradicted the testimony and evidence samples that were negative for the alleged accelerants.
The Indiana Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling ordered a new trial for Bunch, in part due to the withheld evidence and also because of the evolving science of arson forensics. The Supreme Court chose not to review the ruling. Bunch was freed in September 2012, and prosecutors dropped charges against her in December.
“The state of Indiana did not support her efforts to overturn her conviction,” said Faegre Baker Daniels LLP partner Jon Laramore, who joined Bunch’s defense team that succeeded in exonerating her. “Her conviction was overturned over the state’s opposition.”
Professor Fran Watson leads the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. She said attitudes of prosecutors toward re-examining possible wrongful convictions or cases of actual innocence “are beginning to change, and perhaps it changes faster in some places than others, and it’s always going to be case by case.”
Watson said the case of Larry Mayes, who in 2001 became the first person in Indiana cleared through re-examination of DNA evidence during post-conviction relief, was a turning point. It also was the first case Watson handled through the clinic. Lake County prosecutors joined defense attorneys in vacating Mayes’ conviction.
“When science changes just a little bit, do we as a society want to say, you only get one bite at the apple, even though now science has advanced to the point that you can actually show innocence?” she asked.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Ryan Scott has written extensively on criminal procedure and sentencing and recently attended a sentencing conference at Wake Forest University School of Law. There he met Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who formed one of the nation’s first conviction integrity units specifically to review claims of innocence.
“Prosecutors are increasingly willing to cooperate in efforts to investigate credible claims of innocence,” Scott said. “That wasn’t always true.”
Scott said “tough on crime” stances tended to make prosecutors loath to re-examine such cases. “The assumption for many years among prosecutors was it was bad politics to cooperate” with exoneration efforts. In Dallas, Scott said, “the public has responded quite favorably because it helps to confirm the credibility of the system.”•