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Kristine Bunch, inmate #966069 at the Indiana Women's Prison, had an unexpected visitor. But first came the strip search. Inside a windowless anteroom to the guest area, she removed her khaki pants and shirt, her bra and underwear. She lifted her breasts. She bent over. It was the summer of 2009, and in the 13 years she had spent in the Indianapolis maximum-security facility, she had never once tried to smuggle anything, much less the contraband makeup and jewelry the search was meant to catch. But no inmate went in or out of this room without shedding clothes and dignity. Kristine could deal with it. Worse things had happened to her.
Inside, one of her attorneys, Jane Raley, awaited. They couldn’t hug, but anywhere else they would have. Raley had driven down from Chicago, where she worked as a lawyer for Northwestern University’s prestigious Center on Wrongful Convictions. She first met Kristine in this same room about two years earlier, in November 2007, and the next day had called to offer free legal representation through the CWC, commonly known as an “innocence project.” The CWC is one of a few dozen clinics around the country dedicated to exonerating innocent people in prison, but cases of this nature are time-consuming and expensive, and most of the clinics can’t work on more than a handful at a time. Thousands of inmates apply and pray, for years, to get accepted. The vast majority never do. The lucky few, like Kristine, receive expert legal help. And hope.
Serving a 60-year sentence for a crime she says she didn’t commit, Kristine desperately needed both. In 1996, a jury in Greensburg convicted her of murder and arson. They believed she had killed her only child, 3-year-old Tony, by trapping him in a bedroom and lighting the place on fire, just hours after singing him to sleep. Raley and her team at Northwestern were convinced she was innocent—a victim herself—and deserved a new day in court. That’s what made it so hard for the attorney to tell Kristine the purpose of the visit. The Decatur County prosecutor had made an offer: a dramatically reduced sentence. All Kristine had to do was confess she had committed the crime.
Kristine cried as Raley explained the details: Admit guilt and go home in six years. The attorney barely kept her composure. “It’s gut-wrenching discussing plea proposals with your client,” she says, “because the client looks at you and thinks, My attorney must not believe in me anymore.” Raley was certain of Kristine’s innocence, but she was duty-bound to share the offer with Kristine, distraught as she weighed her options and each one’s dire ramifications. Fighting for a new trial was taking years, much longer than she had expected. The plea deal was her only guaranteed ticket out of prison in the relatively near future. Taking the deal wouldn’t bring Tony back, but it would reunite her sooner with Trent—her other son, born three months after she was incarcerated. She had 17 years left before she would be up for parole, and she could erase most of it with one word: guilty.
Still, that word would permanently brand her with another: murderer.
Kristine and Raley discussed the offer for the rest of the two-hour visit. No one will think less of you if you take it, Raley assured. She didn’t have to remind Kristine that the alternative, returning to court, was risky. Kristine had to consider what was best for Trent. Would it damage her child and their relationship if she lied and pleaded guilty, or would he suffer more if her quest for justice failed, and she stayed in prison another 17 years?
When visiting time was up, Kristine knew what she had to do. She said goodbye to Raley, submitted to another strip search, and hoped she wasn’t making a huge mistake.
Before her parents divorced in 1983, Kristine’s childhood felt bright and promising. The family—mother Susan, father Arthur, and younger brother, Michael—lived a little more than an hour east of Indianapolis on land near Connersville that belonged to her mother’s parents, who were comfortable financially: They owned two farms and a bakery in town, and Kristine’s grandfather was a design engineer. She remembers him driving nice cars with large hood ornaments.
Kristine Bunch ultimately won her freedom in 2012. (photo: Jean Lachat)
Kristine loved school. She recalls that she was the only person in her kindergarten class reading Shakespeare. In fourth grade, she won a young-authors award and got to meet the writer of the Clifford books. She wanted to be a teacher when she grew up.
Kristine and Michael spent much of their time together, often unsupervised because their parents were busy, Arthur working the farm or welding, Susan managing the family bakery. Kristine, older by four years, was protective and motherly. If Michael got a scratch or felt sick, she’d help—or try, anyway. More than once she gave him Worcestershire sauce, mistaking it for cough syrup.
Fifth grade was Kristine’s last happy year. Her parents had divorced, but she participated in an accelerated program at school and ranked in the top 20 percent of the state academically. But the next year, in the middle of sixth grade, she and Michael moved with Susan to Greensburg, about 35 miles away. There, Kristine says, Susan often left the children to their own devices, emotionally and physically, and struggled financially on her own. Kristine was depressed and hated her new school. She didn’t make friends, and she tuned out unchallenging classes. Soon, her mother, then 28, married a man 10 years younger. Kristine’s grades plummeted.
She and Michael skipped school frequently, to read and watch TV or to go fishing. The school never made a fuss about their absences; nor did their parents, both of whom Kristine describes as being distracted with work and social lives. Kristine officially dropped out before ninth grade.
As far as Kristine was concerned, her dreams were over. She continued to read leisurely, but she had no aspirations and no job. She and her friends drank and smoked at each other’s houses and went to rock concerts in Indianapolis. Kristine drifted along, content to be lost. “Living the dream,” she says now, only half-joking.
She had one responsibility: Michael. Kristine thought of herself as his surrogate mother, and in turn, Michael proved her only source of stability. After Susan divorced again, one of her boyfriends, Tom Claxton, a factory worker, became a father figure to Kristine and Michael when he lived with the family. He set curfews, and when Kristine went out, he gave her a quarter. If you have any trouble, he would say, call me and I’ll come get you.
Kristine and Claxton stayed close after his romantic relationship with Susan ended. When Kristine became pregnant with Tony at age 17, Claxton encouraged her to take the GED, which she did, and get a job. Kristine wasn’t in love with Tony’s father—“another burnout, like me,” she says—and didn’t mind when he stepped out of the picture. The father’s parents offered to raise the baby, but Kristine wanted to be a mother; she’d had plenty of experience looking after Michael. Still, she confided to her doctor that she was concerned about being a good parent. “The fact that you’re worrying about it means you will be,” Kristine remembers him saying.
Tony was born in March 1992. Kristine worked low-wage jobs through a temp agency and played with Tony when she got home. On his first birthday, she and a friend rigged a balloon drop in the living room. As 100 balloons toppled onto their babies, Tony threw back his head and grinned with glee. It is Kristine’s fondest memory.
She signed up for classes to become a machinist in a factory, a job that could lead to good wages. She felt she was finally on the right path, recovering from a long period of apathy. Susan, divorced for the third time, worked in Columbus, so Kristine and Tony often had their place at Lake McCoy in Greensburg to themselves.
A typical day played out much like it did on June 29, 1995. She and Tony woke up around 6 a.m. An hour or so later, they walked to Claxton’s house around the corner. Claxton, retired and in his 60s, babysat the boy, whom he called “Little Wicker.” Mother and son watched cartoons for a few minutes before Kristine left for class. When she returned that afternoon, she cut Claxton’s grass, and Tony followed her with his toy mower.
That evening, Kristine made dinner, did laundry, and bathed Tony and herself. The pair settled on the sofa for bedtime. They read for a bit, and she sang Tony to sleep.
Kristine doesn’t know what awoke her from the couch early the next morning, or how Tony had gotten into the adjacent bedroom—all she knew was that they were on opposite sides of a fire. She thought she heard Tony call “Mommy!” from the bedroom, and she tried to reach him, but there were flames. It was hot—far too hot to enter the room. She threw a blanket on the blaze, and it disintegrated. So did a pillow. She rushed for the home’s fire extinguisher but didn’t find it.
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