INDIANAPOLIS—Kristine Bunch spent 17 years in prison for her her conviction on charges she set fire to her Decatur County home, killing her 3-year-old son, Anthony, in the summer of 1995.
Except, she didn’t do it and the evidence used to convict her was fabricated.
“When I was convicted I was just in shock,” said Bunch, who was 21 when she was arrested. “You don’t expect something like that to happen and you just think the truth will set you free. Luckily for me it did, but I didn’t expect it to take 17 years.”
Until recently, there was little people wrongfully convicted of crimes could do short of suing over the wrongful conviction, which is what Bunch has done. But a law passed in the 2019 session of the Indiana General Assembly allows exonerated prisoners to be compensated for the time they spent in prison.
Effective Nov. 1, House Enrolled Act 1150 will compensate Indiana residents who were wrongly convicted of a crime and have since been proven “actually innocent.” Nine people in Indiana have already been approved to receive compensation.
The law applies to anyone who has not already received payment for a wrongful conviction or conviction’s underlying criminal investigation. The bill also specifies that in order to qualify, the exonerated prisoners cannot have any pending litigation or file a claim after June 30.
In order for Bunch to qualify for compensation, she would have to dismiss her current lawsuit.
Fran Watson, Indiana University professor and founder of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic in Indianapolis, has a first-hand perspective on the importance of the new law. She has worked since the 1990s to help people who have been wrongfully convicted.
“This bill proves Indiana is not cold-hearted when we’ve done something we recognize to be an error,” she said.
Bunch was sentenced by Decatur County Circuit Court Judge John Westhafer to concurrent prison terms of 60 years for murder and 50 years for arson after a jury found her guilty. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Chicago took Bunch’s case.
Eleven years after Bunch had been sentenced to prison, it was found that an arson investigator fabricated findings that the fire had been started in two separate places, a bedroom and a doorway.
A forensic analyst with U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), agreed, saying he found “a heavy petroleum distillate” in flooring samples taken from both the living room and Anthony’s bedroom.
CWC staff attorney Jane Raley approached three fire forensic experts to review the evidence and they concluded that the arson testimony presented at Bunch’s trial was most likely inaccurate. This is when Raley and staff counsel Karen Daniel decided to fight to overturn Bunch’s conviction and eventually won her a new trial. A few days before Christmas 2012, prosecutors decided against retrying her and she was finally free.
Under terms of the new law, an exonerated prisoner who is approved for compensation is entitled $50,000 for each year spent behind bars. Total liability for this fund could reach $18.5 million based on the total 369 years of incarceration for every prisoner combined, according to nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-Gary, a sponsor of the bill, said he believes that the compensation for the prisoners could never be enough, but this is a good start.
“This bill is so important because it recognizes the seriousness of wrongful incarceration,” he said.
Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, agreed, saying that the amount of compensation that is deserved is “always debatable,” but those who try to go to court could have a jury that decide their time was worth much less.
Bunch has a similar view to Randolph and Young.
“There is no amount of money that can ever give them back what they lost. But it does ease the burden a little. They don’t have to work about whether they’ll have a house or if they can afford to go to the doctor,” she said.
Anyone applying for compensation would be reviewed by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute to decide if they are approved for a payout. They also have to be proven “actually innocent.”
“Actually innocent” is defined in the bill as being determined to have not committed the offense, and did not commit, take part in, or plan, prepare for, or participate in the planning or preparation of any other criminal act in connection with that offense.
Payouts for the compensation would come from an exoneration fund within the general fund.
For Young, he believes that while these situations are unfortunate, there is nothing more the justice system can do to fix mistakes like Bunch’s.
“Things like this happen. There is nothing more the state can do,” he said. “You have people who are going to lie, and we didn’t always have the technology or the resources to prove them wrong.”
Bunch has a similar outlook.
“The judicial system is moving in the right direction,” she said. “People just have a problem admitting they’re wrong. It’s not the judicial system, it’s just run by humans.”
Watson, however, believes there are other ways the justice system could improve. She wants to add an evidence preservation law that would require government agencies to retain evidence that may contain biological material. That way, the evidence can be tested for perpetrator DNA or the absence of a defendant’s DNA.
“There’s no rule that says how long you keep [the DNA], where it goes, or who keeps it,” she said.
Still, the new law is progress, Watson said.
“I’m proud of Indiana. I’m proud to say Indiana got it done. The exonerated prisoners gain strength knowing the legislature cares.”
Haley Carney is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.