Innocent Woman Who Spent 17 Years Behind Bars Works To Help Wrongly Accused

Kristine Bunch, who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in the death of her son, struggles during the holiday season, which reminds her of the child she lost as well as the years that were taken from her.

Bunch, convicted in 1996 of arson and murder for a fire that resulted in the death of her three-year-old son, Anthony, was sentenced to 60 years in prison. She was released six years ago when the Indiana Supreme Court overturned her conviction and the Decatur County prosecutor refused to take her to trial again.

After being sentenced, it took Bunch ten years to prove her innocence. Offered legal assistance by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, she was able to prove that the evidence that showed that the fire had been set intentionally was fabricated by two investigators and an ATF analyst. Despite discrediting her accusers, Bunch would have to wait another seven years behind bars before the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned her conviction on March 21, 2012. The ruling was upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court four months later.

Though the state affords convicted criminals post-release assistance, such as job placement, housing, resume training, Medicaid, food stamps and bus passes, there are no services for those who have been falsely accused. "When I walked out exonerated, there was no programming here in Indiana," Bunch says. "I couldn't even get help with my resume."

Luckily, her family and friends kept Bunch from ending up homeless. With limited employment prospects, she decided to start a nonprofit to help others in similar circumstances. She also has a federal lawsuit filed against the two arson investigators and the ATF analyst who allegedly falsified the report that claimed that the fire had been started intentionally.

"When you walk out after a wrongful conviction, you just have a blank," she says. "There is no conviction. It looks like you were on vacation for 15, 17, 20, 25 years. You have no way to explain that gap and it leaves you lacking in all areas because you don't have a credit score. You don't have renter's history. You don't have a driver's license ... You're literally starting over."

Bunch’s organization, Justis 4 Justus, which is funded through donations, helps exonerees with "literally everything," including gas cards, utility bills or buying clothes. "We have a girl that just got out after 27 years," she says, "and we sent her a winter coat and a couple of outfits because she had nothing when she walked out."

Fran Watson, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, believes Indiana has failed the wrongly accused. "This isn't an issue that's going to bankrupt the state," she says. "This is a very specific group of people who have been wronged by the system." Aside from Bunch, there are 34 other state residents that have been exonerated in the past three decades. The wrongful convictions are often due to flawed science, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, incompetent legal representation, and investigator and prosecutor misconduct.

Bunch would like Indiana lawmakers to provide a compensation package for the wrongfully convicted. Reparation packages are afforded by 32 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Innocence Project. Other states, such as Kentucky, offer no compensation. "I want us to do something that hasn't been done or encompasses the whole picture," says Bunch, who graduated from Ball State University while in prison.

"Let's put part of it in retirement because they haven't been paying into Social Security. Let's give them insurance for a year, job training, education, everything they could need in a year so when somebody walks out, they have people filling up their toolbox, so they can step back into life.

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“They can get a job. They can get a place to live. They can get everything they need to survive. Compensating these victims is one step toward righting the wrong that turned their lives upside down. They deserve to be compensated to help get their lives righted. But money is just a start. They've basically lost decades of their lives in prison for something they didn't do," she adds.

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