Indiana program has yet to pay those exonerated

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An Indiana program aimed at compensating those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes hasn’t yet paid out any money since it was created last year.

State lawmakers approved the program paying $50,000 for each year spent in prison or jail for those later found “actually innocent” of the crime as long as those applying agree not to sue over their wrongful conviction. The state agency running the program has received 15 applications but has not yet awarded any compensation, WTHR-TV of Indianapolis reported.

Those applicants include Kristine Bunch, who was convicted of setting a fire at her Greensburg-area mobile home that killed her 3-year-old son. She spent 17 years in prison before an appeals court threw out the conviction.

A federal court dismissed Bunch’s lawsuit over her conviction and she said she was frustrated waiting for potentially $850,000 from the program.

“They’re going to talk to everyone who opposed me to get their opinion to weigh in, too,” Bunch said. “And then ultimately when the decision comes down it will be based on whether or not they believe I’m innocent.”

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which runs the program, said its staff must make sure all the criteria included in the state law are met before it makes any payments, and that the process has been slowed by the coronavirus outbreak.

“These claims are complex and the review process takes time,” agency spokesman Ben Gavelek said. “Each application must be reviewed for completeness, which not only requires a thorough examination of the documents provided by the claimants, but also, as part of the process, requires us to pursue other sources of information, such as court case records, and verify time served post-conviction.”

A 2019 state legislative report said at least 25 exonerated people were potentially eligible nearly $14 million in compensation for 279 years of incarceration.

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor Fran Watson, who directs the law school’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, said waiting for the state agency can take a toll on those who’ve faced injustice.

“It’s a continuation of something they’ve lived with for too long,” Watson said. “This waiting for the lawyers, waiting for the courts.”

Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who sponsored the bill creating the program, said he understands it is taking time to start making payments.

“I would like to see some movement soon, but trust the agency is working and making headway as fast as it can,” Steuerwald said.

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