Kristine Bunch’s 17-year fight to prove her innocence

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On June 30, 1995, a fire broke out in the Indiana home of Kristine Bunch that killed her 3-year-old son, Anthony.

Shortly after, she was arrested and charged with arson and murder.

She would spend the next 17 years fighting to prove her innocence.

The fire

“I woke up and my home was on fire. and I tried to get into my son’s bedroom and there was fire in the doorway,” said Bunch, who at the time was 22 and pregnant

She busted out a window and tried to climb into her son’s bedroom to save him.

“My neighbors ran up and pulled me out of the window,” she said.

She soon learned her son died in the fire. Anthony had 80 percent carbon monoxide level in his blood.

Indiana state arson investigator Brian Frank said the fire in Bunch’s home started in two places, according to the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions. Frank also said a liquid accelerant was used to start it at both locations.

Six days later, Bunch was arrested and charged.

The trial

On Feb. 26, 1996, Bunch trial began with Frank testifying that one fire started in a bedroom and in the hallway outside of that bedroom.

The arson investigator said accelerant had been poured in the living room to the front door of the home, CWC said.

Anthony (Fox59)

Frank’s testimony was backed up by William Kinard, a forensic analyst with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Kinard said flooring samples showed “heavy petroleum distillate.”

An independent arson investigator for the defense said the fire was accidental but on March 4, 1996, jurors found Bunch guilty of murder and arson.

Two weeks later, Decatur County Circuit Court Judge John A. Westhafer sentenced her 60 years for murder and 50 years for arson.

Two years later, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld her murder conviction based off the ATF’s findings but vacated the arson conviction on double jeopardy grounds.

Fight for freedom

Bunch’s family never gave up hope that Kristine’s innocence would be proven.

In 2006, attorney Hilary Bowe Ricks filed a petition for post-conviction relief with Westhafer.

Bunch’s family asked for help from the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions who discussed the case with arson experts.

That led attorneys to subpoena ATF files on the original investigation.

That subpoena revealed previously undisclosed documents that showed no accelerants were found in the trailer despite Kindard’s testimony.

Due to the highly exculpatory nature of the ATF documents, attorneys filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief, CWC reported.

Westhafer agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing im Oct. 2009.

In June 2010, the judge denied relief saying the ATF documents would not have changed the outcome of the trial.

The defense appealed and argued the case before a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals of Indiana on July 13, 2011.

On March 21, 2012, the court reversed the conviction.

On Aug. 8, 2021, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals decision.

Bunch walked out of the Decatur County Jail in Greensburg, Indiana on Aug. 22, 2012.

Prosecutors dropped the charges against her in Dec. 2012.

Bunch’s attorneys and the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions released the following statement in Dec. 2012:

“We are extremely happy that the State has dismissed the charge against Kristine. She is innocent. As the Indiana Appellate Court ruled months ago, a jury hearing all of the evidence likely would have found Kristine not guilty.

We do not condemn the State for bringing arson-related charges in 1995. That was the equivalent of the Stone Ages for arson investigations. Today we know so much more about the science of fire. As the new evidence offered by world-renowned experts showed, Kristine could not have set this fire as the State contended. The fire was accidental.

Prosecutors who recognize and act on advances in science, like the revolutionary advances in fire investigations or DNA evidence, should be praised. The public expects and is entitled to justice, not convictions that are wrongful. Those who stubbornly persist in obtaining convictions in the face of powerful new evidence abuse their power and bring shame and dishonor on their office as well as the community they are supposed to serve.

Kristine lost her precious son Tony in this accidental fire. She then lost 16 years of her freedom. The depth of that tragedy is unthinkable. Today is the first day she can begin to heal.”

In Oct. 2020, Bunch was declared eligible for compensation by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute’s Board of Trustees. It wasn’t immediately known how much she will receive, although the wrongly convicted are eligible for $50,000 for every year in prison, under state law.

In the time since her release, Bunch, along with fellow Juan Rivera, founded Justis 4 Justus – an organization aimed at helping other exonerees transition back into life outside prison.

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