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7th Circuit allows malicious prosecution case to proceed

January 30, 2018

A malicious prosecution case brought by a woman wrongly convicted of murdering her son will continue in district court after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the grant of summary judgment to the United States government.

After a fire destroyed her home and claimed the life of her 3-year-old son in June 1995, investigators with the Indiana Fire Marshal’s office decided Kristine Bunch had intentionally set the blaze. But when samples from Bunch’s home were sent to William Kinard, a federal forensic chemist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he determined no accelerants were present in the living room and boy’s bedroom, where the fire began.

According to Bunch, the investigators told Kinard they were not happy with the results of his report, so he agreed to fabricate findings and report that accelerants were found in the two central locations. Bunch was subsequently convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 60 years.

But when Kinard’s true findings came to light during post-conviction relief proceedings in 2006, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed her conviction. In addition to the discovery of the fabricated findings, the court found independent evidence to justify post-conviction relief.

Bunch then brought suit against the United States as Kinard’s employer under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Indiana Southern District Court, however, found the intentional-tort exception to the general waiver of immunity in the FTCA applied and, thus, granted summary judgment to the government.

But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in Kristine Bunch v. United States of America, 16-3775. Chief Judge Diane Wood, writing for the unanimous appellate panel, said Tuesday the record in the case was lacking “a complete set of relevant ATF regulations and directives.” Thus, as in Keller v. United States, 771 F.3d 1021 (7th Cir. 2014), the court could not conclude the intentional-tort exception applied to Kinard.  

Further, the ATF’s proffered regulations failed to show Kinard qualified as an investigative or law enforcement officer, a classification that would defeat the intentional-tort exception, Wood wrote. Those regulations allowed ATF officers to “perform any function related to the administration or enforcement” of the bureau’s functions.

“Bunch put forward evidence that Kinard’s job…included the identification of relevant evidence for colleagues during crime-scene investigations,” Wood wrote. “Undoubtedly there are many employees of ATF for whom the same cannot be said. But forensic chemists, according to the summary-judgment record before us, do play at least this active a role.”

“Perhaps this account can be controverted at trial,” the chief judge continued. “For now, however, Bunch did enough to defeat summary judgment in favor of the United States, given that the burden of proof rested with the government.”

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