On April 4, Kristine Bunch came to UIS to share her story about being wrongfully convicted after a fire on June 30, 1995 in Decatur County, Indiana, claimed the life of her three-year old son, Tony.
Investigators supposedly found traces of an accelerant in multiple places in the house and determined that an arson took place. Within days after the incident, Bunch, who was 21 at the time, was considered the prime suspect and on March 4, 1996, was convicted of arson and felony murder and sentenced to 60 years in a maximum-security prison.
On that fatal day, Bunch awoken to the fire ravaging through her home. She tried to recuse Tony from his bedroom, but the fire prevented her from doing so.
Investigators claimed they found ‘pour patterns’ throughout the home, which led them to conclude that arson was the primary cause. They sent evidence to federal investigators who reported no traces or chemical residue from accelerants. For the report that appeared in court, authorities changed it to deceptively claim such traces were in fact present.
While in prison, Bunch was pregnant with her second son who she lost custody of after he was born. After several letters, research, and pleas for help she did not receive a direct appeal. Bunch described it as “one of those times where you have no hope and are totally crushed.”
But, in 2007, the Center for Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law decided to take Bunch’s case. Bunch, with the help CWC staff attorney Jane Raley, was able to attain the original reports that showed no traces of accelerates were found, thereby contradicting the document filed in court and the testimony of the ATF analyst.
In addition, Raley got three fire forensic experts who not only claimed the testimony given in court was absolutely wrong, but that the autopsy results of her son showed that the way he died was the result of an accidental fire, not arson, given the high amounts of carbon monoxide present in the blood.
In November of 2008, a petition for a new trial was filed but was ultimately denied. Prosecutors offered a guilty plea for Bunch to take and would guarantee her freedom in a year. Bunch said “I would never admit to my son’s murder to which I am not guilty of.”
Bunch appealed and in August of 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals in that Bunch was entitled to a new trial. About a month later, Bunch was released from prison and awaited her new trial. In December of 2012, prosecutors dropped the charges and Bunch was finally free.
“It’s was a very shameful experience being accused of killing my own child, but the feeling never goes away,” Bunch said. Since the state of Indiana does not offer compensation or programs to help exonerees, she recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against Indiana.
“The justice system is designed to do the right thing, but it is run by people and people make mistakes. It is heart-breaking and sad that those mistakes destroy the lives of innocent people,” Bunch stated.
Executive/Legal Director of the Illinois Innocence Project John Hanlon said that “the goal of forensic science is to tell the objective truth. It is shameful to think that such incredible flaws can be made by investigators and authorities because they are not aware of advances and updates to science. These are the same people that testify in court and can ruin the lives of innocent people.” According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 1,769 individuals were exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of a crime since 1989.
For those who are interested in learning about how people are convicted of crimes despite being innocent, LES 488 – ECCE: Conviction of the Innocent is a class that discusses this issue and is typically offered in both the fall and spring semesters. For students interested in helping those who are wrongfully convicted, the Illinois Innocence Project offers volunteer, internship, and graduate assistantship opportunities. Visit http://www.uis.edu/illinoisinnocenceproject/students/ for more details and information.