When Will Kristine Bunch Be Free?

Locked away for killing her 3-year-old son, a crime she says she didn’t commit, Kristine Bunch spent 16 years in prison fighting to prove her innocence. In 2012, the gavel finally fell in her favor. But true justice has yet to arrive.

Add a comment

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 won freedom in 2012.

Kristine Bunch ultimately won her freedom in 2012. (Photo by 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.

Kristine threw a blanket on the fire, and it disintegrated. So did a pillow.

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. Wearing only a knee-length nightgown, she ran out of the door toward Claxton’s place, screaming for him. When he came out, they both tried to break Tony’s bedroom windows. Kristine tried to smash one with a tricycle. But it was too late. Claxton finally broke the glass, he later testified, and the room immediately became engulfed in flames, as if he had thrown gasoline through the window.

When emergency crews arrived, a firefighter entered the trailer, noticed that the ceiling had fallen from the living room to the bedroom, and crawled through the black smoke and debris. He climbed over an obstruction before entering the bedroom, though he couldn’t tell what the object was. The home burned for no more than 30 minutes. Outside in the ambulance, Kristine waited with Claxton for news. But even before a crew member discovered Tony’s remains, she knew he was gone.

Investigators from the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office spent the morning inspecting the scene, and by noon they began to conclude it was arson. Kristine was the prime suspect. Around 2 p.m., the Indiana State Police took her statement at the hospital. The police asked her three times to recall what had happened. Some details of her accounts varied: whether she saw smoke when she first woke up, the precise location of the flames, the height of the blaze, where exactly Tony was in the bedroom. In one account, she remembered the hem of her nightgown igniting (later, police noticed it wasn’t singed). She consistently recalled the heat preventing her from reaching Tony, trying to put out the flames with a blanket and a pillow, failing to find an extinguisher, and then, instantly—whoosh—fire, everywhere, filling the room.

In a fog of shock and carbon-monoxide poisoning, she returned to Claxton’s trailer and tried to sleep with medication from the hospital. At 10 p.m., the police called her into the station for more questioning. She went barefoot because all her belongings were lost in the fire. They asked her again to describe the events of the morning. She left the interview in tears and told her mother she didn’t want to be alone with the police again.

Tony’s visitation and funeral took place a few days later, and the investigation continued. The fire marshals thought they had found proof of arson, namely burn patterns on the walls and floor, and other evidence that the flames had started in two different places—on the living room and bedroom floors. They didn’t know what kind of accelerant had been used, but they suspected it had been poured from a gas can found just outside the trailer’s front door. They also thought the object one firefighter had crawled over was a chair blocking the doorway to the bedroom.

Five days after the fire, police granted Kristine’s requests to take a lie-detector test. At one point, the polygraph operator asked her if she had started the fire, and she said she hadn’t. A short time later, he said he didn’t think she was telling the truth and asked why she had set the blaze. She said she didn’t know and couldn’t remember doing it. The evidence mounted against her: this hint of a confession, the varying statements, the investigators’ findings, the supposed chair in the bedroom doorway. The police didn’t have a motive, but they arrested her that day anyway on charges of murder and arson.

Kristine's brother, Michael (pictured), and her parents visited her at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Kristine’s brother, Michael (pictured), and her parents visited her at the Indiana Women’s Prison.
(Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

 

For nearly four months, Kristine grieved for Tony inside a cell at the Decatur County lockup. “I would just cry until I couldn’t cry anymore,” she says. “If I hadn’t woken up any of those days, I wouldn’t have cared.” None of her friends visited or wrote, but her family and Claxton, all bewildered by the accusations, stuck by her. Kristine says her father wanted to hire a lawyer, but she knew he couldn’t afford one and chose to go instead with a public defender, Frank Hamilton, hopeful that the mistake of her arrest would be resolved before trial. She rarely saw Hamilton, or anyone else—she lived alone in a concrete-and-steel cell. Guards handed in food through a small opening in the door.

In October, a judge finally released Kristine on bond, noting that there was no insurance money on the trailer or Tony’s life, and therefore no obvious motive. On Halloween night, she went out to a bar with her mother to take her mind off the ordeal and met a man. As the trial neared, she discovered she was pregnant. Kristine was shocked because she had long been on birth control for medical reasons. Then she realized what a blessing the baby was. “I thought God had punished me by taking Tony,” she says. “But I was overwhelmed. I had no idea what to do.” She would have to figure it out on her own; she says she only later found out that the father was married and wouldn’t leave his wife.

Before the trial, Kristine turned down the prosecutor’s offer to drop the murder charge in exchange for pleading guilty to arson and a 15-year sentence. The truth would come out in the courtroom, she hoped, even though she worried public opinion was against her. An unmarried high-school dropout living in a trailer park, whom police suspect killed her son? That’s not a sympathetic figure. One day at a gas station, someone saw her and yelled “Murderer!” Even Michael’s friends thought she was guilty. “I lost about all of them,” he says. “I have no understanding of why. She didn’t even have a parking ticket.” Michael theorizes that the high-profile trial of Susan Smith influenced locals’ opinion of Kristine around Greensburg. (Smith, a South Carolina woman, was convicted in July 1995 of killing her two sons by letting her car roll into a lake. The case was “huge and everywhere,” Michael says.) Two days before Kristine’s trial began, Greensburg’s daily newspaper reported—on the front page—only the most damning statement she had made to the authorities: “Bunch told David Motsinger of the Indiana State Police during an interview that she ‘didn’t know’ why she had started the fire.”

Kristine’s trial started on February 26, 1996, in the courtroom of Judge John Westhafer. Prosecutor William Smith told the jury in his opening remarks that he wouldn’t present a motive because a murder conviction didn’t require one. Then, relying on investigations by the police and the fire marshal, he argued that Kristine started fires in the living room and bedroom and trapped Tony by blocking the bedroom doorway. Then she gave herself away, he said, with inconsistent statements to police.

The judge accused her of getting pregnant to gain sympathy. “You will not raise that child,” he said.

A supervisor from the state fire marshal’s office testified that multiple points of origin of a fire indicate arson, and Smith emphasized this rule of thumb in his opening statements. He also said the living-room floor’s burn pattern was consistent with markings left by a flammable liquid. William Kinard, a forensic chemist with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, D.C., testified for the prosecution that he analyzed 10 samples from the trailer: nine from the floor, one from Tony’s mattress. Five of the floor samples tested positive for an accelerant. Of the positive samples, one was from the bedroom and four were from the living room. The test narrowed down the accelerant to a “heavy petroleum distillate,” but not a specific one, though the most common household HPD is kerosene. Smith introduced Kinard’s final lab report as evidence.

Kristine’s court-appointed counsel, Hamilton, had never been involved in a murder trial, despite having spent eight years as Decatur County’s deputy prosecutor and 12 as a private defense attorney. Hamilton didn’t have a strong rebuttal to the ATF’s report. A private fire investigator named Tom Hulse testified for Kristine that he disagreed with the fire marshal’s arson classification and suggested that the cause could have been electrical—and therefore should be classified “undetermined,” not arson. Relatives testified that Kristine loved Tony and was a protective mother. According to Claxton, their relationship “couldn’t have been any better. He worshipped her. And she worshipped him.” Kristine’s close friend, Kim Hubbard, took the stand to refute the police’s claim that Hubbard had provided them with a motive. In Hubbard’s statement to police a week after the fire, she said that Kristine had asked her to take custody of Tony a year earlier. But Hubbard told the jury it wasn’t true. “I hadn’t said half of those things,” she testified. “[Indiana State Police trooper] Pete Tressler had heard a rumor that Kristy had offered to give me custody of her son. I told him that was not directly true, that Kristy was going through a rough time and that she had asked me if anything happened to her, would [my husband] and I take care of her child. I told [Tressler] that she was a good mother, that she was very loving and attentive toward her son.”

Hamilton disputed the location of the chair allegedly blocking the bedroom door and the validity of that evidence, but he rested his case without pointedly addressing the accusation that Kristine lied to police in her statements. “I probably had some reason at the time,” he says now. “Either that, or in real time, it probably didn’t register with the jury.” The jurors didn’t hear about her carbon-monoxide poisoning, either—or that significant exposure to the gas causes confusion and memory loss.

Kristine's brother and her parents brought her son Trent to visit her in prison from the time he was born until she won freedom in 2012.

Kristine’s brother and her parents brought her son Trent to visit her in prison from the time he was born until she won freedom in 2012.
(Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

 

Kristine, despondent over Tony’s death and her arrest, didn’t feel emotionally stable enough to testify, and Hamilton supported the decision. She sat quietly at his table, trying to follow the instructions she says he had given her: Don’t react. Don’t show too much emotion, or too little. Sit there, rigid. “Watching people discussing you like they know you—it takes on an unreal quality,” says Kristine. “I don’t remember paying a lot of attention to what was going on.” Outwardly, though, she was unresponsive and sullen. The jury never heard her speak or saw her cry.

The trial lasted six days. The ATF report, the chair at the bedroom door, the inconsistencies in Kristine’s statement to the police, the supposed accelerant on the floor—the evidence was damning. Smith left the jury with a cold image of Kristine in his closing statements, condemning her for not trying to save Tony or expressing enough remorse in her interviews with police. He also repeated Kim Hubbard’s alleged statement about Kristine wanting to give up her son—the one Hubbard denied making under oath. The jurors deliberated for several hours before delivering a guilty verdict. In the end, they believed Smith and Kinard more than Hamilton and Hulse.

At the sentencing a month later, Judge Westhafer gave her 60 years for felony murder and accused her of getting pregnant to gain sympathy. “You thought it would work to your advantage somehow in this process. It will not,” he said. “You will not raise that child.”

“You are not your crime.” That was the mantra of Dana Blank, the superintendent of the Indiana Women’s Prison—and the woman largely to thank for making sure the eastside facility to which Kristine was transferred wasn’t a hellhole. Blank’s approach, in fact, mirrored the original vision for IWP, which opened in 1873 as the first dedicated women’s prison in the nation. The founders based their principles on those of Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a mid-19th-century reformer who believed in tailoring the prison environment to women’s specific needs. Early on, IWP inmates received vocational training, kept cows on the grounds for fresh milk, and tended a garden. Some worked in households near the prison at Michigan and Randolph streets, a stately building that looked more like a boarding school than a correctional facility. The gate was usually left open, and there wasn’t a tall security fence until 1957. The first male superintendent arrived in 1967, and conditions deteriorated over the next decade. In 1981, a national prisoner-rights union named IWP one of the worst women’s prisons in the country. Blank, who had worked in the Indiana prison system since 1968, became superintendent of IWP in 1991 and restored principles of education, community service, and personal responsibility to the institution. Grieving Tony’s death and six months pregnant, Kristine wrote to Blank to ask for help: “I shouldn’t be in here. I didn’t do this.” Blank, to Kristine’s surprise, acknowledged the letter. All of the prison’s psychiatrists were booked up, Kristine remembers her writing, but Blank vowed to find another staff member for Kristine to open up to. And she did—on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kristine at least had someone to listen.

Blank’s IWP was about as genteel as a maximum-security prison could be. Inmates wore their own clothes, not uniforms. Guards woke up the population by knocking on cell doors, and prisoners moved freely around their units until time for “counts,” or roll calls. Still, Kristine, just 22 and pregnant, barely registered the routine between waves of grief, disbelief, and shock. In July, three months after entering prison, she delivered Trent at Wishard Memorial Hospital. Her family came, but they weren’t allowed to see Kristine. Nurses took messages back and forth. She awoke from her C-section with her leg chained to the hospital bed, briefly held Trent, and returned to prison the next day.

Her parents picked up Trent and took him straight to see Kristine in the prison’s visiting room. Afterward, Kristine was alone with her despair over her circumstances—no money, no connections, at least 30 years away from possible parole, separated from her remaining son, and with no one who believed in her innocence other than family.

Playtime with Trent at IWP motivated Kristine to better herself while incarcerated.

Playtime with Trent at IWP motivated Kristine to better herself while incarcerated.
(Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

 

If this wasn’t rock bottom, it was close. But there was still hope—a Marion County public defender was working on her appeal. In the meantime, Kristine stayed busy. She enrolled in the prison’s cosmetology program, and soon spent her allotted recreation time in classes for a bachelor’s degree in English from Ball State. One of her parents brought Trent to the visiting room every week or two. Kristine was allowed to cradle the infant in her arms and give him a bottle.

By fall 1996, Blank announced plans for a new Family Preservation Program, designed to help mothers fulfill their role as much as possible from prison. In most cases, women retain custody during incarceration and assume responsibility for their children when they get out. Blank emphasized parental accountability, believing that the program, known as “Family Pres,” would ensure better relationships with the prisoners’ children—and that the kids would benefit as well. Mothers (and grandmothers) who passed a parenting class would get to spend an extra eight hours each month with their children in a special playroom. This was the best news Kristine had heard since she arrived. Eight hours a month wasn’t much, but she would get another 10 hours in the regular guest area. She was grateful for anything that allowed her to bond with Trent.

The center opened in February 1997, outfitted with furniture made by women in the prison’s building-trades program. The cheerful rec area offered beanbag chairs, books, games, and a border of alphabet letters on the walls. Glass-block windows let in light. There was still constant supervision, but there were looser rules. Kristine and the other mothers could feed their babies with a spoon and crawl on the floor together, activities forbidden in the visiting area. There would be Halloween and holiday parties in Family Pres—and those wouldn’t count toward the allotted eight hours.

Each summer, her family attended a picnic in the courtyard, an annual privilege for some long-term inmates like Kristine. Michael, his girlfriend Megan, Susan, Kristine’s aunts and cousins, and Trent all came, bearing pickled beets and fresh fruit, two of Kristine’s favorite foods. Other free time was filled with multiple support groups—for mothers, for long-termers—and scrapbooking sessions with the Junior League, programs to knit scarves for students from low-income families, even a chance to make mosquito nets that were sent to Africa.

The offerings—and Blank’s emphasis on community service—helped keep the relatively small population at IWP tight. Kristine made friends, including other mothers and one teenager—also “down,” as prisoners say, for killing family members by arson—but with no claims of innocence. There were few fights. According to Kristine, the worst thing about the culture was that any favor had to be returned.

Without word from her public defender, Kristine let herself believe her situation was temporary—that the state would realize its mistake and let her out. That hope lasted until early 1998, when she lost her direct appeal. She received the verdict in the mail.

Within five years of being imprisoned, Kristine earned her bachelor's degree from Ball State.

Within five years of being imprisoned, Kristine earned her bachelor’s degree from Ball State.
(Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

Kristine, imprisoned already for two years, was devastated. She called home and then crawled into bed and cried. The next day, she got up determined to go forward. “I’m together,” she says. “I always had to be with Michael.” If she was going to be at IWP for the long haul, she would make her time count by bettering herself—and others. She took prison jobs that earned her $1.30 per day, on top of the cosmetology and Ball State classes. She made good grades and enjoyed school. The teachers snapped her up as a GED tutor. “She’s a very caring person, a very gentle person—a good fit for helping that population,” says Kristie Stewart, then IWP’s director of education. “Most of the people she worked with [had been] trying to get their GED for a long time. It took a lot of patience to work with them.” Kristine also enrolled in every vocational program she could fit into her schedule. She got a ServSafe catering certificate and learned to operate a printing press. Anything to stay busy. Anything that might help her get back on her feet if, by some miracle, she ever found a way out of IWP.

Visits in Family Pres with Trent kept her spirits up. But as Kristine suffered through her mother’s and Michael’s stories about the moments she’d missed—his first word, his first steps—the idea of getting out and raising him would not go away. “No amount of visits or parties can make up for not being there,” she says. As far as she knew, though, losing her direct appeal was the end of her legal road.

In 1999, during one of her many volunteer roles, clown ministry, a prisoner who worked in the IWP’s law library informed Kristine that she wasn’t out of options after all. Had she ever heard of post-conviction relief? PCR, Kristine learned, grants a prisoner the constitutional right to go before a judge in the event of an unlawful arrest—in essence, it’s a way to get a new trial. In Indiana, grounds for post-conviction relief include new evidence not available at the time of the trial, if the court determines the evidence would have made a difference to the jury. Other conditions include a violation of constitutional rights, such as ineffective assistance of counsel. But to win a motion for post-conviction relief, the petitioner bears an impossibly high burden—guilty until proving oneself innocent.

As Kristine dug into the PCR requirements and procedures in the library, she wasn’t sure what all the legalese meant. But one thing was clear: She needed a lawyer.

It’s hard to afford an attorney on $1.30 per day, so Kristine opened the phone book and started sending letters to law firms, asking for help. “I’m innocent,” she wrote over and over in the prison’s library. Any replies were grim; most attorneys wanted $25,000 just to review the case. Kristine requested the transcript of her trial and began reading. She looked up arson cases containing terms from the proceedings and became familiar with patterns in fire investigations. But Kristine could sign up for library time only a few hours a week. Rejection letters from local lawyers trickled in.

Several years passed without much progress except Kristine’s memorization of her own case. In the meantime, she was known as a model prisoner, someone who was quick to volunteer and never got in trouble. She started attending Bible study with a group that visited from the near-east side’s Holy Cross Catholic Church, a major source of support and a catalyst for forgiving herself for Tony’s death. “When the fire happened, I thought I was being punished by God for something I didn’t do,” she says. “I realized God doesn’t punish that way.” And she continued to mother Trent as best she could, bolstered by other Blank initiatives like Day Camp, a summer program during which the children of inmates could visit from breakfast through dinner for five days. Camp became Kristine’s favorite time of the year. Once, Blank had a wooden ark built and brought in pairs of animals. Another year, volunteers fashioned a submarine simulator with seats that rocked from side to side as the kids watched film clips of underwater scenes. But more importantly, month in and month out, Kristine and Trent played in the Family Preservation area, cuddling on the floor and reading books. Sometimes he would fall asleep, giving him the impression that he had spent the night there, with his mother—a form of bonding rare in any prison, and unheard-of in men’s facilities.

By 2001, Kristine, 27, had earned her bachelor’s degree from Ball State and looked nothing like a drifter anymore. In graduation pictures, she stood tall in a cap and gown, empowered and vivacious. Her makeup and short, layered hairstyle, neatly curled around her face, were perfect. She became more assertive, too. Once, she says, when a guard wouldn’t let her sit on the visiting-room floor with Trent to play with blocks, she filed a grievance with Blank and got the privilege restored.

Quietly, though, Kristine still struggled to pursue post-conviction relief. There were small signs of encouragement: A fire investigator Kristine met through an inmate offered to help. And a friend featured in a book by criminal-justice author Jennifer Furio suggested Kristine reach out to the writer and try to work her connections.

“When the fire happened, I thought I was being punished by God for something I didn’t do. I realized God doesn’t punish that way,” Kristine says.

Kristine took the advice. “I’m desperate for help … even if it means becoming another television tabloid freak,” she wrote to Furio in the first of what became a series of correspondence the author would include in her 2001 book, Letters from Prison: Voices of Women Murderers. Kristine explained how she thought her case had gone wrong—the police had rushed to judgment within 30 minutes of arriving at the scene, she believed, and the jury didn’t have an open mind. “I was working on making [life] better for Tony and me,” she wrote. “But my family had always been lower-class. There is a stigma with that. I just couldn’t believe it went into the courtroom with me.” Later in the letter, she continued: “Ms. Furio, I am trying to fight to be able to mourn and grieve for my baby, Tony, to be able to visit his grave; and I am fighting to be with my other son, who needs his mom. I don’t know how to fight or even where to turn.” Furio answered: “You are right: poor women from poor families with little education have less chance to get a fair trial.”

Furio asked to see Kristine’s trial transcripts, and the pair continued to exchange letters. In one, Furio reported on a conversation with Frederick Goethel, the investigator Kristine had enlisted for pointers. According to Furio, Goethel said Kristine was “shafted the first time.”

Furio must have agreed, because in Letters from Prison, she introduced Kristine sympathetically, saying, “If ever there existed a story that could force the greatest skeptic to reconsider cynical views regarding a convicted person’s plea of innocence, it would be the case of Kristine Bunch.” Yet Furio tempered Kristine’s expectations: “There are no miracles.”

Hilary Bowe Ricks keeps a messy corner office in a worn building downtown, close to the City-County Building. A framed landscape hangs crookedly behind the three-person law office’s receptionist, and unruly stacks of manila folders slouch against the walls. A graveyard of 7Up Zero cans sits next to her computer.

It’s the workspace of someone who doesn’t do power suits and who pulls up her legs in her desk chair, comfortable amid the clutter. A native of Syracuse, New York, Ricks has the straight-shooting tone Hoosiers associate with natives of that state, though she moved here at a young age and graduated from Indiana University.

By the time Trent was a teenager, a legal clinic in Chicago commonly known as an "innocence project" had taken Kristine's case, and she was planning on law school.
By the time Trent was a teenager, a legal clinic in Chicago commonly known as an “innocence project” had taken Kristine’s case, and she was planning on law school.

Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch

The Indiana State Public Defender Agency hired Ricks out of law school in Indianapolis. Interested in judicial fairness, she represented indigent inmates on post-conviction relief claims. When she branched out on her own in 1993, she maintained that same client base. She has represented hundreds of criminals and convicts in the last 20 years and tries to be affordable, often working on payment plans and happy when her clients in prison can do much of their own research. At least one of her clients served time with Kristine.

In 2003, Kristine finally wrote Ricks for assistance, and the lawyer agreed to help for around $2,000 up front and payments thereafter—if she stayed on the case. Kristine was working three prison jobs, including a late-night kitchen shift. By 2004, she had scraped together more than a thousand dollars, and her family came up with the rest.

Almost immediately, Ricks gave Kristine her first breakthrough: an article about arson myths that included terms she recognized from her trial transcripts (concrete spalling, alligatoring, V-patterns, pour patterns), indicators that had been used to put her away for 60 years but were no longer considered sure signs of arson. It turned out that a lot had changed in fire investigation since Kristine had gone to prison. Investigators like to say that blazes destroy evidence but leave a lot of clues,  and they thought that because arson bore a unique set of markers—chiefly telltale signs of a flammable substance and multiple points of origin, as in Kristine’s case—they could simply use their eyes to determine a cause. But leading up to the 21st century, experts began to embrace a more scientific understanding of fire. One of the turning points was the Lime Street Fire of Jacksonville, Florida, in 1990. John Lentini, a highly regarded independent fire investigator, was called in to verify a prosecutor’s theory that a man had poured a liquid accelerant on the floor of his house and set it ablaze, leaving several family members to die. The suspect claimed that the fire started accidentally on the sofa and spread so quickly that he was forced to flee. The state pursued the death penalty and wanted Lentini to review the case before going to trial. Lentini decided to try something new: He replicated the accused’s version of events, igniting a sofa sans accelerant in an identical house nearby. The blaze left many of the same arson-esque markers found at the crime scene. The culprit, however, was “flashover,” the moment when a fire becomes so hot that everything in the room, including the air, simultaneously combusts—whoosh. Lentini realized that when a fire, regardless of how it began, continues to burn after flashover, it leaves many of the same markers long associated with arson. The prosecutor dropped the charges.

Kristine Bunch with teenage son Trent
Kristine Bunch with teenage son Trent (Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

Lentini concluded that fire investigators—who often learned nonscientific techniques from old-timers—had been misreading innocent fires as crimes for decades, and he championed the revision of fire-investigation techniques. Based on rigorous scientific analysis of fire scenes since the mid-1980s, the National Fire Protection Association created protocols (including guidelines that mirrored Lentini’s Lime Street finding about flashover) and in 1992 published a new manual called NFPA 921.

The manual was immediately controversial, and the vanguard of the fire-investigation community resisted it. (To wit: At Kristine’s 1996 trial, Brian Frank from the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, testified that he had seen NFPA 921 in the office but had never read it.) It took until 2000—four years into Kristine’s imprisonment—for the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a report affirming the manual’s authority, largely quieting its opponents. The call for reform became more urgent in 2004, when Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been wrongly convicted of setting fire to his house and killing his three daughters. The new science exonerated him after he died in an electric chair. Some fire investigators continued to discount the science, though, and rely on experience instead. As late as 2009, the National Academy of Sciences admonished those still adhering to old rules of thumb.

Many fire investigators still weren’t well-educated on the changes in arson myths when Kristine began following this trail in 2004. She requested a copy of NFPA 921 through an interlibrary loan, but the language was technical and confusing. Then Kristine stumbled onto some help: The wife of a former fire chief was serving a short stint at IWP for allegedly stealing bingo funds. The woman asked her husband for input and relayed explanations of terms and research suggestions to Kristine.

A certain piece of evidence from her trial sparked Kristine’s interest: the damning lab report from the ATF, the agency that tested the samples from the trailer. The findings had been a key element in the prosecution’s case against Kristine, supporting the theory of two points of origin and the presence of an accelerant. Forensic chemist William Kinard’s final report had been entered into evidence. But Kristine was curious about the raw data from the tests—gas chromatographs, they were called. For each sample, a machine produced a reading that looks like the choppy line of a heart monitor. An analyst, like Kinard, interprets those lines as indicative of a liquid accelerant or not, and can even discern between gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene, and other flammable substances. The gas chromatographs wouldn’t mean anything to Kristine, but they couldn’t hurt. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the ATF from the prison law library but never got a response.

Ricks, meanwhile, knew that their best chance at PCR was an innocence project, which could afford new investigators. Kristine had already written to several with no luck. IU’s small Wrongful Conviction Clinic, on IUPUI’s campus, turned it down for lack of resources. She didn’t receive a response from Northwestern. She did, however, earn her paralegal certificate in 2005 through a correspondence program, and a fellow inmate suggested she start thinking about law school so she could help other people in her situation—if she ever got out.

After all, Kristine had keen instincts. She asked Ricks to contact investigators mentioned in the arson-myth article. To her surprise, one of them, an elite fire-science expert named Richard Roby in Columbia, Maryland, replied in 2006. He offered 10 hours pro bono and assigned one of his young staffers, Jamie McAllister, to the case. It was an encouraging vote of confidence, but McAllister didn’t produce anything conclusive at the time.

Ricks knew the court would want to see new evidence—something big, debunking the state’s theory on how the blaze began. The problem was that fresh evidence would require a new investigation, and they couldn’t afford to hire experts. Further complicating matters, they were missing Decatur County’s photos of the alleged crime scene, which any new investigators would want to see. Ricks could acquire them through “discovery”—the process in litigation that requires both the prosecution and defense to share their evidence—but only after filing for PCR.

Running out of options, Ricks decided to make her only play for the photos. In December 2006, two years after taking on Kristine’s case, she threw some generic legal issues into a “shotgun” petition for post-conviction relief, and hoped for the best.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions overlooks Lake Michigan from a prime piece of real estate on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago. Its offices are spacious, tidy, and businesslike, betraying little of the urgent and passionate work that happens there or the high demand for its services. The CWC has exonerated 25 people since 1998 and assisted in the release of 18 others, more than any wrongful-conviction clinic besides the original Innocence Project in New York. The office receives approximately 200 letters each month asking for assistance, most from prisoners. But with only a few staff attorneys and a handful of interns, they can’t accept many cases. One day in 2006, an envelope containing a chapter from Jennifer Furio’s book landed in the office. A letter accompanied the chapter, sent by a college student who had read the book in a class. Someone, the student wrote, should help Kristine Bunch. The mere fact that Kristine got a second chance to catch the CWC’s attention is something of a miracle. Northwestern works mostly on Illinois cases, but Kristine’s bore signs of a worthwhile fight, and Indiana’s statutes governing post-conviction relief encouraged CWC attorneys Jane Raley and Karen Daniel. Here, petitioners are guaranteed a hearing if represented by private counsel; that’s not true in all states. Winning PCR wouldn’t be nearly as easy, though.

After reviewing Kristine’s trial tran-scripts, the lawyers contacted Ricks for an initial screening. Ricks told them she be-lieved Kristine was innocent, but Raley was also curious about Kristine’s background, including psychological issues or a prior criminal record. Finding none (a good sign), she got Kristine’s file and began to contact investigators. These weren’t just any investigators, either—they were some of the biggest names in the fire-science business: John Malooly, a former ATF agent well-versed in fire scenes, and John DeHaan, author of the most widely used textbook for fire investigation. Both almost exclusively testify for the prosecution in arson cases. After reviewing the evidence, Raley says, they sided with Kristine.

Months went by without any news while Northwestern evaluated the case. There was no guarantee that the clinic would accept it, so Ricks carried on with the PCR, requesting continuances and amending the brief. Trent celebrated his 11th birthday at IWP in the summer of 2007.

Life wasn’t so tolerable at the prison anymore, though; changes were afoot. The no-uniform policy had been replaced by a requirement that IWP prisoners wear khaki tops and bottoms. Blank left for a job in the main office of the Indiana Department of Corrections in 2006. Day Camp was cut to one day instead of five. Random strip searches became more frequent, Kristine recalls. Not only that, but the prison’s population was growing, necessitating a move to the west side of the city in 2009—and diluting the close-knit community that Kristine and other long-termers valued.

“I’ve prosecuted a lot of arson cases,” says Ron Safer of Chicago’s Schiff Harden law firm and one of Kristine’s attorneys. “I know that arsons are not committed unless there’s a very powerful motive.”

In the meantime, Kristine knew that Trent was struggling. He was prescribed ADHD medication, was bullied in school, and began skipping class. Kristine knew that her circumstances were partly to blame. Having a mother in prison is “a hard stigma for a kid,” she says. “You don’t want to put yourself out there and be judged for it.” Whenever she felt beaten down, Kristine peered at photos of Trent and Tony and reminded herself that she deserved to be a mother. If she wanted to provide guidance to her son, though, Northwestern had to come through—and soon.

About 180 miles to the north, Northwestern’s Raley and Daniel had narrowed down their next new case to two candidates, and Kristine was one of them. They met her for the first time at IWP for a final screening in November 2007. Raley and Daniel were pros at not giving a prisoner false hope, but Raley found it hard to keep a poker face. “The case was just screaming at us that this was the real thing,” she says. “Here we had a woman with no prior criminal history. No eyewitness. No confession. No motive. And the experts we were consulting with were telling us that there was no scientific basis to suggest arson. We had a perfect case.”

For once, Kristine didn’t have to wait long for a verdict. The lawyers called the next day to offer their services. With Ricks agreeing to stay on as a pro bono local liaison, Raley and Daniel took over and soon recruited two powerful Chicago attorneys to the cause, also pro bono. Ron Safer and Kelly Warner both work at the law firm of Schiff Hardin, located in hushed lakeview digs in Willis Tower. Before joining the firm, Safer, a litigator, spent nine years as the lead prosecutor and one year as chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago. “I prosecuted a lot of arson cases,” Safer says. “I know that arsons are not committed unless there’s a very powerful motive.”

Ricks called Kristine’s representation “the Dream Team.” The lawyers, in turn, considered Kristine, better versed in the law than most—and unfailingly positive—a crucial partner. They listened to her thoughts on the case, culled from years of research, and knew they could talk to her straight.

Three months after being freed, Kristine (far left) took part in the launch of a program for women's justice with her lawyers at Northwestern.
Three months after being freed, Kristine (far left) took part in the launch of a program for women’s justice with her lawyers at Northwestern.

And then, a lead: the ATF report Kristine had unsuccessfully pursued—the raw data of the tests for a liquid accelerant on the trailer’s floor. Raley and Daniel subpoenaed the chromatographs, and luckily the lab in Washington, D.C., still had them—as well as a draft of ATF chemist Kinard’s report, which was news to everyone. The paper hadn’t been mentioned or produced at Kristine’s trial. Only Kinard’s final report had been entered as evidence and given to Kristine’s lawyer during discovery.

The attorneys were dumbstruck by what they saw on the typed draft: handwriting altering the results of the chemist’s interpretation of the raw data. The draft classified each of the nine floor samples as positive or negative for the presence of an accelerant. The original version found heavy petroleum distillate on only three of the samples. But someone had crossed out two negative samples, 6 and 8, and added them to the positive results. There was no explanation for the change—and it was a critical one. Sample 6 was from the living room, part of the “pour pattern” prosecutors identified to argue that Kristine had doused the floor with an accelerant. Sample 8 was from the bedroom floor, and Kinard testified that it bore a flammable substance—though according to the initial report, Kristine’s lawyers now believed, it didn’t.

So the Dream Team sent the chromatographs to their expert, DeHaan, and asked for his unbiased interpretation. He was well-qualified for the task, having sat on the committee that created the test Kinard used. DeHaan agreed with Kinard’s first analysis—the unaltered findings. Findings that never made their way to the court, the jury, or even to Kristine’s public defender.

The revelations unraveled the theory that Kristine had poured an accelerant on the floor, and a clean Sample 8 suggested that the blaze did not start in two places. Yet the pour pattern and Sample 8 had hung heavy over the courtroom; prosecutor Smith mentioned them both in his closing arguments.

The report gave Kristine’s lawyers major ammunition. Not only could they point out that the fire investigation was perhaps scientifically invalid, but they could argue that withholding the draft report amounted to a constitutional violation of Kristine’s Brady rights. Legally, it doesn’t matter whether Decatur County prosecutor William Smith knew the draft report existed—and Kristine’s team didn’t have any reason to believe he did. The fact that the ATF, an agent of the prosecution, didn’t share the document, for whatever reason, was enough to argue that Kristine deserved a new trial. That the unaltered draft, combined with the chromatographs, was also highly exculpatory—likely to sway a jury toward believing the fire wasn’t arson—was also crucial.

This was the break Kristine had been waiting for. She was elated by its potential to win her freedom. But she also felt crushed. Someone’s pen had altered not just a piece of paper, but her entire life—and Trent’s. Much of Kristine’s ability to cope until this point was nurtured by the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, a well-regarded Indy-based charitable organization that helped finance some of the prison’s progressive programs, including the Wee Ones Nursery, through which short-term prisoners who arrived pregnant lived with their newborns. Executive director Jennifer Pope Baker often arranged for groups to tour IWP and see the organization’s support of Wee Ones and Family Preservation firsthand, and Kristine was always a speaker. Baker thought Kristine exemplified everything the Women’s Fund aimed to achieve at the prison: to give a vulnerable population, and their kids, a better chance to avoid future incarceration and contribute to society. The two became friendly over the years, but even as Kristine waited for the Dream Team to file an amended PCR with stronger evidence and arguments, she never shared her backstory—or her claim of innocence.

Instead, Kristine provided paralegal help to other prisoners, set her sights on law school, became one of the first inmates to take the LSAT, and talked most about the relationship she was building with Trent one Saturday at a time in Family Pres. Kristine even found ways to connect with him when he wasn’t there. She watched his favorite TV shows, like wrestling, which the two rehashed when he visited. They read the Harry Potter books “together” by exchanging letters about them. Still, she pined for the chance to be a full-time parent.

One day, out of the blue, Raley presented her with a chance to do just that—the plea deal from the Decatur County prosecutor, a response to the PCR-hearing request: an admission of guilt for release in six years.

Fighting spirit aside, Kristine just wanted to go home. Trent was almost a teenager, heading for serious growing pains. Even though her heart was in the right place, Susan, his “Nanny,” couldn’t shuttle him around, and his social life suffered. He felt lonely at school. He was only a little younger than Kristine had been when she dropped out, and she worried that he, too, might fall through the cracks.

But she also fretted about the long-term consequences for Trent if she took the deal—about teaching him that it was okay to lie to get what you want, and the reality of trying to provide for him burdened with a heinous criminal record. On the other hand, there was no guarantee she would win PCR, even with science and the Dream Team on her side. And there was no assurance of a verdict either way anytime soon.

What should a mother do? Kristine spent about an hour in the visiting room to decide.

No deal. The old Kristine had given up on herself before, when she left school. The new Kristine would not repeat the mistake.

Although no official record exists, 15 Indiana prisoners have been exonerated by post-conviction relief or other means since 1991, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a crowd-sourced project by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University’s schools of law. Technically, though, successful PCR isn’t synonymous with exoneration—rather, it’s the court’s way of saying that the prisoner didn’t get a fair trial the first time. Few PCRs are granted in Indiana, says Fran Watson, director of IU’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic in Indianapolis, because petitioners have to show a reasonable probability that new evidence would have changed the verdict. That goes for prisoners in most states, but Indiana presents another hurdle: The PCR hearing must occur in the court where the trial was held. Usually, returning to the trial court presents an uphill battle for the petitioner, as the same prosecutor and judge are often involved. Indeed, Judge Westhafer still presided in Greensburg’s Decatur County courthouse when Kristine returned there for the first time in 13 years, in October 2009, just days after her 36th birthday. Wearing leg restraints, Kristine shuffled past a few reporters and photographers. This time there was no jury. Judge Westhafer alone would rule.

Decatur County prosecutor William Smith argued to deny post-conviction relief. Kristine’s “new” evidence wasn’t really new, he said, and therefore didn’t meet the criteria for PCR. The state, he thought, had won the first trial fair and square. As for the Dream Team’s claim that the missing ATF draft report amounted to a Brady violation, Smith said that the raw data underlying the document had been brought up at trial—public defender Frank Hamilton had asked Kinard, the ATF’s chemist, to explain some of the carbon readings from his test. The testimony was highly technical and likely beyond most jurors, but Smith argued the discussion had the same effect as entering the draft into evidence.

This altered ATF lab report analyzing samples from the fire scene became one of the keys to Kristine's exoneration.

This altered ATF lab report analyzing samples from the fire scene became one of the keys to Kristine’s exoneration.
(Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

 

Kinard, however, had never mentioned any uncertainty about his findings when he was on the stand. In fact, Smith had emphasized in his original closing arguments that there was “no dispute whatsoever” with Kinard’s findings.

Ron Safer made the case that the evolution of fire-investigation techniques, as dictated by NFPA 921, represented new and exculpatory evidence not available at the time of the trial. For instance, the supposed burn patterns were not indicative of an accelerant after all; in fact, Safer argued, these particular burns were proof that no accelerant was present: An ignited liquid, unable to heat past its boiling point, wouldn’t have charred the floor as badly as it had been in Kristine’s trailer. Their expert witnesses, DeHaan and Malooly, took the stand, with Malooly stating that there was no scientific basis for the determination of arson. Lentini, the elite forensics expert behind the Lime Street Fire case, said as much in an affidavit supporting Kristine.

Smith answered that while the science had evolved, it merely led the team’s expert witnesses to categorize the cause of the blaze as inconclusive—the same determination Kristine’s investigator made at trial—and therefore shouldn’t qualify as new evidence. The team offered another angle, though, one not discussed at the trial. They had hired Jamie McAllister, the forensic toxicologist from Maryland whom Kristine had recruited to her case years earlier, to focus on Tony’s medical report. The boy had died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, or smoke inhalation, not from thermal injuries, or burns. His carboxyhemoglobin level—which revealed the severity of his carbon-monoxide poisoning—was an astronomical 80 percent when he stopped breathing; 50 percent is fatal. Also, there were no burns in his trachea or lungs, which meant he had consumed a massive amount of carbon monoxide quickly, and before the fire grew hot enough to burn his airway.

A pathologist had testified for the state during the trial, saying that the boy had died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, but McAllister pointed out at the PCR hearing that blood toxicology wasn’t widely used to evaluate suspected arsons until 2001. That might be why the public defender hadn’t pursued a forensic interpretation of Tony’s medical report to support Kristine’s case. To McAllister, Tony’s blood provided evidence that the blaze had not started on the trailer’s floor: A fire in an enclosed, unventilated space produces more carbon monoxide than flames in an open area, such as a typical room in a house. She said it would have taken 90 minutes or more for Tony’s carboxyhemoglobin level to reach 80 percent if the fire had started in the bedroom or the living room, as the state believed, and by then he would have died from burns. Yet the fire lasted for less than 30 minutes.

McAllister proposed a different theory: The blaze had started in the bedroom ceiling, perhaps as an electrical fire, and smoldered slowly without an air source. Carbon monoxide would have accumulated in the small space above the ceiling tiles and gradually seeped into the room—and out into the living room, where Kristine would have breathed it as she slept. The flames eventually would have burned through the ceiling and fallen to the floor. It also would have delivered a rush of carbon monoxide into the bedroom, causing Tony’s carboxyhemoglobin level to spike past the point of fatality before the fire turned into an inferno. And Kristine would have been confused—possibly severely—from carbon-monoxide poisoning, which could have explained the variations in her statements to police. To Kristine’s lawyers, McAllister’s testimony didn’t merely justify a new trial; they believed it proved their client was innocent.

For eight months, lawyers on both sides filed more paperwork while Judge Westhafer deliberated. On June 8, 2010, he denied post-conviction relief.

Kristine’s Dream Team had prepared her for this likelihood, and they started the appeals process right away. The crucial hearing took place a year later, on July 13, 2011, in the Indiana Statehouse’s Supreme Court chambers. Kristine was not allowed to attend, but Safer and Ian McLean from the Indiana attorney general’s office summarized their sides’ arguments from the PCR hearing before a panel of three judges. The proceeding lasted about an hour. Eight months later, in March 2012—a maddening two-and-a-half years after the PCR hearing—Kristine was summoned to her IWP counselor’s office, where she took calls from her attorneys. It was Ricks. She had the verdict. “Let me just skip to the bottom,” she said. “‘We reverse the post-conviction court’s denial of Bunch’s
petition for post-conviction relief, and remand for a new trial.’”

Kristine sat down, stood up, and sat again, tears flowing. “You’re telling me we won?”

“Yes, babe!” Ricks said. “We won!” The court’s two-to-one ruling reversed Kristine’s conviction. Legally no longer guilty of murder, she would be released from prison.

But there was a catch. Raley called just as Kristine was walking out of the office. “I need you to be prepared,” she said. “They’re going to try to appeal. They have 30 days.” If the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ decision, the conviction would stand, and Kristine would likely serve out the 14 years left on her sentence until parole. Furthermore, Kristine had to stay in prison until the Supreme Court ruled. She asked how long it could drag out, and then sat down and cried again when Raley answered: Perhaps another year.

Summer crawled by as the Supreme Court considered the state’s appeal. Kristine thought constantly of being freed. But life outside those walls had changed. E-mail. Pocket-sized phones. A child she barely knew. “My biggest fear was being able to get to know Trent,” she says. In mid-July, when the 16-year-old visited for Family Day, it was clear he was going through something more serious than teenage moodiness. He didn’t know what to make of the case’s stops and starts. Was she getting out this time? For real? For good? How would his life change when she did? “I had heard it before,” he says. “I wasn’t getting my hopes up.”

“There was no consideration of me trying to have a life of my own,” Kristine says.

In early August, Raley called with the best news of all: The Supreme Court decided to not consider the appeal. Now Kristine had won. Her conviction was officially overturned. The Decatur County prosecutor could opt to retry her or drop the case altogether. Either way, the authorities couldn’t keep her in prison any longer.

On August 22, 2012, Kristine Bunch left IWP in shackles for the last time and headed to Decatur County for a routine hearing. Afterward, she was finally free. In the jail parking lot, where family, attorneys, and news crews gathered, she hugged Trent first. IWP’s no-touching rule no longer applied. She embraced Ricks and Susan. Trent lingered on the edge of the crowd. “Is this really it?” he recalls asking. “They can’t take her back?”

To Kristine, all that mattered was that she would be there when Trent woke up in the morning at Susan’s house. On this day, that was enough. That was everything.

The life Kristine imagined during those 16 years in prison began to splinter within her first hours of freedom. After celebrating at Columbus’s nicest restaurant, Kristine went home with Trent and Susan to their old, two-bedroom townhouse. The ride was quiet. “Kind of uncomfortable,” Kristine says, “like I had just arrived from another planet.” When she walked in, she was surprised to find her mother’s home consumed by piles of junk—tchotchkes, papers, outdated electronics. Kristine cleared off a recliner and tried to doze, sitting up. Instead, she kept peeking in on Trent. It had been years since she last watched her son sleep.

She visited Tony’s grave the next day and then cleaned Trent’s room, filling 10 trash bags with old clothes, food, candy wrappers—and, to her surprise, cigarettes and “spice,” also known as “fake pot.” Kristine knew Susan allowed Trent to skip school and make his own routine, but she never had an inkling they lived in such conditions or that he smoked. After less than a week in the recliner, she had to leave. It wasn’t just the mess. Kristine couldn’t assert her authority under Susan’s roof. “I had lost 16 years of parenting, and I didn’t want to share,” she says. Trent balked. Susan, Kristine says, had prepared him for her release by promising they would all live there together. Over Trent’s protests, the two of them moved into her brother’s tidy split-level about 15 minutes away, where they each had their own room and more time alone together.

Trent, Kristine, Susan, and a family friend embrace in the jail parking lot following her release.

Trent, Kristine, Susan, and a family friend embrace in the jail parking lot following her release.
(Photo by Jean Lachat)

Kristine and Trent tried to bond. He shared poetry he’d written, and she happily watched his favorite movies, including Napoleon Dynamite. He taught his mom how to use the Internet and set up her Facebook page. One day she noticed that Trent had bookmarked the Indiana Court of Appeals website on his laptop. When she asked him about it, he said he checked it every day in the spring, waiting for her ruling.

Kristine, still harboring a prison mentality, wanted to maintain a strict routine—and in turn create order for Trent. Laundry on the same day each week. Dinner at precisely the same time every night. Trent wasn’t used to structure, despite Susan’s attempts to provide some, she says. At Michael’s house, he resisted bedtimes and basic house rules, and he and Kristine fought frequently. “They would pick at each other until they were so upset that I had to separate them,” Michael says. “Every day was a struggle.”

Joint counseling sessions helped Kristine realize that she and Trent wanted different things. For years, she had dreamed of making a life together, just the two of them. But he hadn’t. “I was an unknown, so he was afraid of that,” Kristine says. “He expected me to come home and live with his Nanny, and we’d all do everything together. I get it; it’s hard to turn your back on the person who raised you.” Trent also had a bond with aunts and cousins on Susan’s side of the family, but Kristine no longer did—they hadn’t visited her beyond family picnics at IWP. Complicating matters, Kristine and Susan butted heads over who was in charge. “She was having a hard time letting go of the parenting role,” says Kristine. “She had been there for the tough times.” Kristine hated that the power struggle hurt Trent, and she sympathized with the tough position her mom was in, but she was also frustrated that Susan didn’t understand her desire for independence. “There was no consideration of me trying to have a life of my own.”

The dysfunctional triangle added to the stress of life after a long incarceration, one Kristine felt ill-equipped to handle. First, there was her financial situation. At 39 years old, she might have earned $500,000 as a machinist by then if she hadn’t gone to prison. Instead, she was broke, had paid little into Social Security, and even owed taxes on a parcel of land she inherited while at IWP. Unlike, say, Texas (which pays $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment) or the 28 other states that compensate exonerees, Indiana offers no restitution—or reentry programs or tax help, as it does for parolees with criminal records. Plus, in Kristine’s case, the murder charges against her were still pending. She was not an exoneree in the purest sense, and likely never would be; Indiana doesn’t offer a certificate of innocence, an official decree of exoneration from the courts. She made ends meet by working as a paralegal for Hilary Bowe Ricks. Jennifer Pope Baker of the Women’s Fund found Kristine a good dentist and hairstylist who donated their services. Kristine still tears up at their generosity—and the difficulty she had accepting it. She was used to the customs of prison, where every favor, no matter how small, is repaid. For all she knew, she could be on trial again within a few months, and it was hard to trust that justice would prevail if she faced another jury, especially when she realized that strangers recognized her. In September, she went to a bank in Indianapolis to set up a checking account and heard people whispering, Do you know who that is? Kristine felt like she was wearing her prison khakis again. She may have walked out of IWP a free woman, but she didn’t feel like one.

Kristine spent much of the fall giving in to the comfort and familiarity of seclusion; in a cruel twist of irony, this tendency is common among exonerees, often too paranoid or nervous to leave the house. When she did venture out, she faced constant reminders that the world had changed. How do you turn on the bathroom faucet? (It was motion-activated.) What was the box with a blinking light just inside the restaurant? (An ATM.) Making choices paralyzed Kristine, but the discoveries themselves fascinated her. “Self checkout—she almost had a fit over that,” Trent says.

In November, she traveled to Northwestern for the announcement of The Women’s Project, a new program at the Center on Wrongful Convictions to raise awareness of gender bias in the criminal-justice system. Not only was Kristine the center’s most recent success story, but the lawyers and many staffers were fond of her and wanted to stay in touch. Kristine took the bus to Chicago alone and checked into a hotel for the first time in her life, eager to see her law-clinic friends. At the launch party, alongside other female exonerees and people who believed in her innocence, she felt more at ease than at any time since leaving prison.

The Decatur County prosecutor’s office announced the dismissal of the murder charges against Kristine in December 2012. This wasn’t necessarily good news. Indiana has no statute of limitations on murder, and the county could file new charges at any point in the future. Dismissing the original charges bought the county more time to investigate, and that was the plan. Chief deputy prosecutor Doug Brown told The Indianapolis Star, “We have not surrendered. We are still evaluating what [evidence] is available with the intention to go forward.” That was the office’s last public statement regarding Kristine. (The prosecutor’s office did not respond to IM’s interview requests.)

Michael and Megan took Kristine’s mind off of the news with a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, over the holidays. Before she left, she put Trent in Meadows Hospital, a residential treatment center in Bloomington, to address his behavioral issues. Kristine also began to focus on going to law school. She studied for the LSAT online, and the Women’s Fund gave her money for a prep course. In April, she boarded a plane by herself for the first time to attend the exoneree community’s Innocence Conference in North Carolina. There, she learned that she wasn’t alone in her struggles—many exonerees at the conference found it hard to fit in with their families. On top of trying to become part of each other’s lives after a long absence, they explained, some relatives acted overprotective and overbearing, or grew frustrated trying to relate to the exoneree’s state of mind. Despite good intentions, some joyful family reunions had devolved into hurt, disappointment, resentment, and guilt. Kristine knew the feeling.

The conference also strengthened Kristine’s resolve—she felt compelled to be a lifeline of support and legal aid for other wrongly convicted prisoners, as her lawyers had been for her. But she couldn’t find her footing in Indiana, the state that had so long held her against her will. Chicago, she thought, was where she and Trent belonged.

It was drizzling when Kristine returned to visit her lawyers at Northwestern’s downtown-Chicago campus in June 2013. She waved off her companion’s umbrella on the walk over from her hotel, enjoying the cool droplets on her skin. “In prison, they don’t let you outside when it’s raining,” she explained, smiling. The city had a way of making her feel carefree.

Inside the law clinic, Kristine shared her big news. “I’m moving to Chicago,” she told Judy Royal, an attorney and a Women’s Project co-director. The two talked about neighborhoods and her plan to relocate that August, before Trent started his junior year. She would get a job and save for law school at Loyola, maybe, where she could work with an exoneree program called Life After Innocence. She would put off enrolling for a year, though, to spend more time with her son.

Trent got on board with the idea when Kristine took him to Chicago for his birthday, and his self-esteem was at an all-time high by the time he checked out of Meadows a couple of weeks later. “If I hadn’t gone, I would still be a disrespectful, chubby kid,” he said afterward. “I would have been in jail.” His time at Meadows helped him with loyalty issues, too. “It finally clicked that [emotionally] I could be with both of them,” he said. “This is a new chapter, and it’s not going to end for a while.” His mentor encouraged him to join the wrestling or football team at school. “He wants to try out for linebacker,” Susan said at the time. “He takes the initiative to do things now.”

To save money for the move, Kristine got a full-time job at a Speedway gas station. Modest work, yes, but she was proud of her sensible choice: She could transfer to Chicago as soon as she found an apartment. Jennifer Pope Baker even collected money from friends for a security deposit.

Trent started school in Columbus, and the transition from Meadows back to Michael’s house proved tough. He began quarreling with Kristine again over rules. His attitude, so positive after leaving Meadows, gave way to agitation when Kristine signed a lease in Chicago and set an October moving date.

A few days before the move, Trent insisted on remaining in Columbus. “It wasn’t out of the blue,” Kristine admits. “The whole year, I struggled with my mom. In her mind, I was stealing her child.” Kristine believes Trent wasn’t as prepared to be away from his extended family as he had let on. Being separated from his mother felt normal.

No matter how progressive the Indiana Women’s Prison had been, no matter the hours she spent playing with Trent in Family Pres, nothing could compensate for the years they would have spent bonding had she not been convicted. It was time to make another crucial decision: Stay or go.

In the end, the hope for what she could be, what she could accomplish, the exonerees she could help, won out. Kristine didn’t force Trent to go with her. “I don’t want to focus on something that isn’t … achievable,” she says. “I enjoyed our year together, getting to know him and seeing who he could be.” After placing flowers on Tony’s grave, she made the one-way drive to Chicago. If anyone in her adopted hometown asks about the symbolism behind her new phoenix tattoo (which is inevitable, given that it covers one calf), she’s ready to tell her story of rising from the ashes in order to raise awareness of wrongful conviction, and to point out the heart her tattoo artist was moved to add when she learned of Kristine’s plight and her will to overcome it. That doesn’t mean, though, that she’s ruled out taking legal action for wrongful imprisonment. Suing, she says, wouldn’t be about answers (they would be hard to come by anyway; Kinard, the ATF chemist who authored the damning report, died in early 2013). But the action could prevent other injustices—and possible restitution wouldn’t hurt.

Kristine plans to take a job at a casino and hopes to start law school in a year or two. For now, though, she isn’t forcing anything with Trent; the two haven’t spoken since she left. “There are days when I cry, and I miss him,” she says. “All I can do is stand on the sidelines, support his decisions, and be there for him.” She acknowledges the disconnect—that after years of yearning to be with her son, she’s left him again. But here in Chicago, a new mission awaits. And with that, possibly, a life that finally feels free.

 

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue.

Related Content