Greensburg woman jailed in
son's death closer to freedom
By Sandra Chapman - Wthr.com
March 22, 2012
Indinapolis - An innocent woman may be behind
bars. Defense attorneys believe Kristine Bunch deserves a new
Bunch already won an appeal
claiming the evidence was flawed in the arson case that sent her
Now state prosecutors are
seeking a review from the State Supreme Court.
Sixteen years behind bars as
inmate number 966069, Kristine Bunch has never been closer to
freedom. She sat down with 13 Investigates for an exclusive
interview weeks after her attorneys made her appeal last August.
"It's hard when you're
convicted, to still keep saying ,'But I didn't.' It's like you
don't think anyone's going to believe that," she told 13
Investigates from the Indiana Women's Prison.
Wednesday, the Indiana Court
of Appeals ruled her 1996 arson and murder conviction for the
mobile home fire that killed her three-year-old son Tony should be
tossed out, and that Bunch should get a new trial.
In its ruling, the appeals
court said new evidence that suggests the fire started in the
ceiling should be heard. The court also says the State withheld a
test report from the ATF.
she's wanted for years.
"You teeter between hope,
excitement, anger, fear," Bunch said, describing her emotions over
In a statement the Indiana
Attorney General's office says:
"The State respectfully
disagrees with the majority's opinion and largely agrees with the
dissenting opinion's analysis of the issues. In the State's view,
Bunch is not entitled to a new trial. The State is carefully
examining the lengthy opinion in order to determine whether to ask
the Court of Appeals to rehear the case, or to seek further review
in the Indiana Supreme Court. The State has 30 days to file a
petition for rehearing or transfer."
Now, 13 Investigates has
learned state prosecutors are calling for a review of that
decision by the Indiana Supreme Court.
"We've been talking with the
Attorney General's office about requesting transfer to the State
Supreme Court," said Decatur County Prosecutor Jim Rosenberry, who
added that his office "made it clear that we would like to do
that. They're just getting all the details at this point."
Neighbors now living in the
same mobile home park where Kristine Bunch once lived say justice
has always been about money.
"A lot of time it's about
money. Whether they have money for a good enough attorney and they
keep sitting there waiting for mercy," said Sean Smith.
Attorneys working with the
Northwestern University Center for Wrongful Conviction have spent
countless hours free of charge, pushing for a new trial.
"It's indescribable. I never
thought anyone would step up to help me, and now I have more
lawyers than I can name and more investigators. People that I've
never ever met," Bunch told 13 Investigates.
The Indiana Attorney
General's office has 30 days to ask for a rehearing by the Court
of Appeals or the Supreme Court, or to transfer the case back to
Decatur County for re-trial.
If Decatur County declines
to prosecute, Bunch will be set free and the case will be
Investigators said the fire
was deliberately set. They found burn patterns and evidence of an
But attorneys for Kristine
Bunch and Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Conviction
argued the evidence is based on outdated fire investigation
13 Investigates first
uncovered problems with arson cases in 2008 based on what experts
now call "junk science."
In its ruling, the Indiana
Court of Appeals cited new reports showing Tony died from high
levels of carbon monoxide, suggesting the fire started in the
The court also found the
State violated rules by not turning over burn tests from the ATF.
Woman convicted in 1996
arson, murder of son gets new trial
The Indiana Court of Appeals allowed Kristine
Bunch to go to trial again and allowed a vacated conviction
March 21, 2012
A woman convicted of arson and the murder of
her 3-year-old son in 1996 was granted a new trial Wednesday.
The Indiana Court of Appeals allowed Kristine
Bunch to go to trial again and allowed a vacated conviction.
Kristine Bunch has spent the past 16 years in
prison following her conviction. Her attorney, Ron Safer, argued
before the Indiana Court of Appeals in July 2011, claiming arson
science is drastically different than it was in 1996.
Prosecutors said Bunch poured kerosene through
the linoleum-floored bedroom in which her son, Tony, was found and
into the living room of the trailer before lighting a match. Tony
had 80 percent carbon monoxide level in his blood.
Safer argued there was overwhelming evidence
that proves Bunch could not have set the fire. The attorney said
the evidence includes advances in the field of fire victim
toxicology, which allegedly proves the fire could not have been
set in the way prosecutors argued it did. Additionally, Safer
argues there were errors committed by Bunch’s trial counsel.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the Indiana
Court of Appeals ruling, and we will continue to vigorously defend
Kristine to ensure that we right this terrible injustice,” said
Safer in a news release statement. “We will not rest until
Kristine is back home where she belongs.”
Bunch was sentenced to serve 60 years in prison
following her 1996 conviction.
The Office of the Indiana Attorney General
disagreed with the court’s ruling and does not believe Bunch
should be given a new trial.
Public Information Officer Bryan Corbin
released the following statement Tuesday:
respectfully disagrees with the majority’s opinion and largely
agrees with the dissenting opinion’s analysis of the issues. In
the State’s view, Bunch is not entitled to a new trial. The State
is carefully examining the lengthy opinion in order to determine
whether to ask the Court of Appeals to rehear the case, or to seek
further review in the Indiana Supreme Court. The State has 30 days
to file a petition for rehearing or transfer."
Mom Served 14 Years for Arson
Now Called 'Impossible'
By Jay Schadler and Thomas Berman -
May 5, 2010
People who escape fatal fires with their lives
may face a tangle of emotions: fear, regret, relief.
In many cases, they also face
"If you survive a fatal fire, you've got a very
good chance of being charged with setting it," said John Lentini,
one of the nation's leading fire experts.
If just 5 percent of the nation's
half-a-million yearly structure fires are suspicious, Lentini
said, then that means 25,000 chances to mistakenly charge someone
"And if they [prove a crime took place] with
bad evidence, and the jury believes that it's a set fire, many
times there is no doubt about who did it," he said.
Kristine Bunch was convicted by a jury in 1996
of setting a fire in her Indiana trailer that killed her
3-year-old son. She received concurrent sentences of 50 years for
arson and 60 years for murder.
"This is a woman who has no prior criminal
history ... no arrest record ... no psychiatric history," said
Jane Raley, senior staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful
Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. "There was
Raley is working to get Bunch, 36, a new trial.
"There is no motive," Raley said. "Why would someone like Kristine
Lentini questioned the evidence against Bunch.
"I can turn just about any fire into an arson
fire if that's what I want to do," he said.
Arson: Conducting a Fire Test
We brought Lentini to the Fire Science Program
at Eastern Kentucky University, where technicians conduct fire
tests in a bunker set up with rooms of ordinary furniture.
Fires are set in the bunker not with gasoline
or other flammable liquids but with just a spark, as if from a
"We are hoping to generate some of the
artifacts that people in the past have called evidence of arson,"
Among those whom Lentini counts as having
believed misguided arson evidence in the past is ... John Lentini.
Twenty years ago, Lentini got a life-changing
lesson in arson fires. Back then, he was convinced that a man
named Gerald Lewis had killed his pregnant wife and four children
by setting a fire with gasoline in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I was scheduled to be deposed the next morning
for the prosecution," he recalled. "I was going to help them send
Gerald Lewis to Old Sparky [the electric chair]."
But before he testified, Lentini had a chance
to test Lewis' claim that the blaze began by accident when his
couch caught on fire.
Arson: The 'Lime Street Fire Test'
Lentini's test is now commonly called the "Lime
Street Fire Test." To Lentini's surprise, the fire in the test
left behind the exact same signs as if it had been started with
gasoline, even though none was used.
"It was an awakening," Lentini said.
Which is why Lentini is now driven to bring
hard science into what traditionally has been seen as the "art" of
"I think when they said ... 'art,' I think what
they meant was luck," Lentini said.
Back at Eastern Kentucky University,
investigators began their fire experiments, with cameras and
thermal imaging sensors recording every moment.
The tiny couch fire grew steadily as a layer of
hot dense smoke formed on the ceiling. The sensors showed how hot
it was. Temperatures reached about 1,200 degrees. Soon, blazing
hot gas started to descend.
Just minutes after the fire was started, the
hot gases suddenly ignited, and the room exploded.
This is a phenomenon known as "flashover."
"Flashover is a transition point where you go
from having a fire in a room to a room on fire," Lentini said.
Arson: Burn Patterns and Points of Origin
But what you see after a fire has exploded into
flashover is even more important to our story. Lentini guided us
through the ruins after the fire was out.
"If you see a pattern on the couch, that looks
like it's where it started," Lentini said. "'Cause there's a 'V'
[a V-shaped burn pattern] over there, and there's a 'V' over here.
You say, 'Well, that could be two points of origin.'"
The appearance of multiple points of origin in
a fire has traditionally been regarded as "slam-dunk" evidence of
arson, Lentini said.
It was such a slam-dunk that helped put Bunch
in the slammer. During Bunch's trial, the prosecution used photos
showing burn patterns as evidence of multiple places of origin.
"That is 100 percent inaccurate," said Raley,
who is working for a new trial. "One hundred percent wrong. One
hundred percent fiction."
When Bunch was convicted in 1996, Raley said,
flashover and the science of arson were not well understood. Bunch
has now served 14 years in prison and has no hope of parole for at
least 12 years.
The prosecutor in Bunch's case declined our
request for an on-camera interview, but he maintained that the
jury made the right decision. He said that Bunch's behavior was
questionable and that she made many contradictory statements
during numerous police interviews. The jury made its decision on
matters that go beyond the science alone, he said.
There wasn't much left of Bunch's trailer after
fire swept through it, killing her son, Tony, 3, in June 1995.
What was left, according to fire investigators at the time, was
unmistakable evidence of arson.
"The arson conclusion was made within two hours
of the investigators arriving at the trailer," Raley said. "The
first investigators arrived around 8 o'clock in the morning. By 10
o'clock in the morning, there had already been a conclusion."
That conclusion was that Bunch had poured
accelerant in her son's bedroom, touched off the fire and let him
die. "I am never going to stop fighting, never going to stop
trying to prove that I didn't do this," Bunch said.
Arson: 'Their Theory Is Impossible'
Prospects for a new trial for Bunch may depend
on one woman, Jaime McAllister, an expert in the emerging field of
combustion science. McAllister's opinion about the prosecution's
original arson case can be summed up in four words.
"Their theory is impossible," she said.
An autopsy report on the little boy's body
showed he died with 80 percent carbon monoxide in his blood.
That's an impossibly high number, McCallister said, if the fire
had been set in his room.
"You couldn't breathe in that amount of carbon
monoxide and get to that level of 80 percent before you would die
from the heat," McAllister said.
Tony Bunch was dead, she said, long before the
flames got to him.
Basic science suggested the fire started in an
unventilated place, like in the space between the ceiling and the
roof, where there were electrical wires and a malfunctioning
light, McAllister said.
A short in the wires could have
overheated the ceiling tiles.
"As that smoldering occurs, it produces a lot
of products, like soot and carbon monoxide," McAllister said. "And
they would start to leak out in the room."
Arson: Wrongful Conviction?
In her theory, little Tony passed out from
breathing carbon monoxide. The fire grew. Ceiling tiles broke down
and fell. Fed by more oxygen, much thicker, hotter smoke billowed
into the room.
"Very quickly, he is going to inhale those
products, and he is going to die very quickly from those
products," McAllister said.
For Bunch's lawyer, the new toxicology evidence
leads to only one conclusion.
"The fire could not have started in the living
room, it could not have started in the bedroom," Raley said. "So
we know that the fire could not have happened the way the state
claims... It just can't happen".
But if the fire did not happen as the
prosecution claimed it happened, why wouldn't a new trial be
"Well," Raley said with a sigh, "it's always
difficult to unravel a wrongful conviction."
Decatur County, Ind., prosecutor William Smith
said he believes the "new" science was already rejected by the
He said Raley just wants to substitute her
expert's opinions for that of the jury.
The court ruling could come at any time. This
first appeal is the least likely to succeed, said Raley, who vows
that she is prepared to keep going to higher courts in an effort
to get Bunch a new trial.
Aiming for exoneration
By Michael W. Hoskins - TheIndianaLawyer.com
September 2, 2009
Kristine M. Bunch has a dream of becoming a
lawyer, to be a voice for women who don’t have one.
Before that can happen, though, she has to
overcome an obstacle that stands in the way of not only a legal
education but her very freedom. She has to prove her innocence and
overturn an arson and felony murder conviction for a fatal fire
that killed her 3-year-old son which led to her spending the past
13 years in prison.
The 35-year-old mother is serving a 60-year
felony murder sentence, one she contends is the result of a
wrongful conviction caused by faulty science used by fire
investigators. An inmate at the Indiana State Women’s Prison on
the eastside of Indianapolis, Bunch is offender No. 966069 and has
achieved what her attorneys and prison officials describe as
remarkable for anyone behind bars: she’s a degree-holding
cosmetologist, mini-marathoner, service-dog trainer, and ministry
volunteer, not to mention a certified paralegal and the first
female inmate to ever take the LSAT.
While she’s proud of her accomplishments
inside, those aren’t her main focus. Instead, she’s on a mission
to prove she shouldn’t be behind bars in the first place. The odds
aren’t in her favor. She’s a convicted felon and is no longer
innocent until proven guilty; rather she’s guilty and must regain
her innocence. But serving as a beacon before her, Bunch focuses
on the fact that wrongful convictions are becoming more common,
proven nationally as science evolves and flaws in the legal system
become more apparent.
More than 230 people have been exonerated
nationally, and Bunch hopes to add her name to that roster with
the help of an Indianapolis attorney and Northwestern University
School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Her
post-conviction appeal in Decatur County articulates that the
science used to determine the fire’s cause was faulty and that
it’s a discredited method proving to be a significant factor in a
growing number of wrongful conviction cases nationwide. The appeal
represents the first Hoosier case to touch on this issue, and if
she proves her innocence she has the potential to be an additional
name on Indiana’s exoneration list.
“Kristine is a model prisoner who’s earned her
college degree while in prison and is anxious to be released in
order to gain custody of her other child and eventually attend law
school,” said Illinois attorney and law professor Karen Daniel,
who is representing Bunch on behalf of the center. “It’s important
that her story be told.”
Her nightmare began June 30, 1995.
In the early morning, the then-21-year-old
mother awoke to flames and smoke in her mother’s trailer home in
Greensburg. Her 3-year-old son, Tony, had been asleep in another
bedroom. In published letters recalling her memories, Bunch
described running down the hallway through thick smoke to her
son’s room, seeing him trapped inside where he stood on the bed
and calling for his mom. She tried to throw a blanket on the fire
but couldn’t get inside. She ran outside to find help but not
before getting mild burns herself.
Six days later, Bunch was arrested and charged
with both arson and felony murder. She pleaded not guilty and went
through a jury trial in February 1996. Prosecutors initially
sought life without parole, but the jury unanimously recommended
against that penalty, and the trial court imposed the maximum of
Looking back on the trial experience, Bunch
said she was a naïve at the time. She was four months pregnant
with her second son – now 13 – and was still grieving the loss of
Tony and in a blur during the trial. The jury convicted her on
both arson and murder charges, and she initially received 50 years
for the arson and 60 years for the murder, though the trial judge
merged the two at sentencing.
“I don’t know if my lawyer did a good job or
not,” she said about her appointed trial attorney from Greensburg.
“He told me that my best interests were at heart, and I trusted
that. But I really don’t know what happened to say if that’s true
or not. All I know is that I ended up in here.”
In appealing to the Indiana Supreme Court on
direct appeal, Bunch said she had virtually no contact with her
appointed appellate lawyer at the time. She received the brief in
prison once it was filed. The lawyer also sent the June 9, 1998,
appellate decision affirming her felony murder conviction and
60-year sentence. The court also remanded with direction to vacate
the arson conviction because of double jeopardy – a person can’t
be sentenced for both a felony murder and the underlying felony.
“After the appeal came back, I thought nothing
else could be done,” she said. “That’s what I thought was the
After years in prison, Bunch eventually learned
about post-conviction relief and that reinvigorated her hope that
more could be done. She contacted an author who’d written about
wrongful convictions and female inmates before, and that resulted
in Bunch sharing her story for the 2001 book, “Letters from
Prison: Voices of Women Murderers.”
Researching post-conviction relief in the
prison’s law library, Bunch learned she’d need to find her own
attorney and fellow inmates connected her with Indianapolis
attorney Hilary Bowe Ricks. She had to work three prison jobs to
pay off the payment plan they reached, and now Ricks is working
the case pro bono.
Through a prison pen pal, Bunch learned about
the wrongful conviction clinic at Northwestern’s law school and
faxed her trial transcripts to them to review. That was almost a
year ago, and her attorneys filed a petition for PCR in Decatur
Circuit Court in November. The non-profit Innocence Project based
in New York has also gotten involved in the case. A
post-conviction hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20, and at that time
her attorneys expect for the judge to consider the evidence and
ultimately take the matter under advisement to determine whether
any relief is warranted.
Daniel said that Northwestern’s clinic has seen
many arson cases in recent years where junk science has played a
role, but to date this case is the first litigation initiated on
Ricks said she also hasn’t had any cases where
this has come up, but she expects it to become more frequent.
“This is a very specialized knowledge, and
there are many, many cases where they’ve found out now that,
through better science, the previous science determining arson is
faulty,” Ricks said. “One of the biggest things that struck me
when reading the transcripts is that you just don’t jump to an
arson conclusion within an hour … . You have to rule out
everything else and then come to that decision. That wasn’t done
In Bunch’s case, investigators relied on
several factors such as blaze temperature and development speed,
irregular burn patterns, low burning, and holes in the floor to
determine the fire was likely an arson started in Tony’s bedroom.
But advances now show many of those indicators are myths, her
Earlier this year, the National Academy of
Sciences issued a congressionally mandated report finding serious
deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and called
for major reforms. Part of that report says fire investigators
have in many cases routinely relied on indicators that were common
at the time but have since become outdated and discredited by
scientific research. Bottom line: Fires once thought to be arsons
are now being proven to be the result of some other factor.
The question that must be considered in Bunch’s
case and any others raising this issue is whether this change in
forensic science standards would have made a difference at trial.
Bunch and her attorneys all believe the answer is yes.
“Only recently, I started believing that
there’s a chance I could get out before I’m 50-something years
old,” she said. “There’s a reason for hope.”
Offender No. 966069
Until that possible PCR arrives or her sentence
runs out, Bunch lives in a complex with about 200 other women
inmates, living in a military-barracks style room where each side
has 22 women. Her Department of Correction number is as much a
part of her identity as her given name.
She’s earned her general educational
development diploma through tutoring, and earned an associate’s
degree in cosmetology through Ball State University. Bunch helps
boost the moods of her fellow inmates with hair or nail services.
She also participates in a ministry through the prison, trains a
20-month-old Labradoodle named Monon to be a service dog for the
disabled, and practices for a 13.1-mile prison-track mini-marathon
in late September. Bunch also took an eight-month Blackstone
course to get certified as a paralegal. In June she took the LSAT
and became the first woman in the women’s prison to have ever done
“A lot of women in here don’t have a voice and
can’t afford an attorney,” she said. “That’s the person I want to
be: someone who can give them a voice."