Kristine Bunch's ordeal only began with a fire in her trailer home in Greensburg, Indiana, one night in June 1995. Bunch tried but failed to rescue her 3-year-old son, Anthony.
Investigators concluded the fire had been set. Charged with arson and the murder of her son, Bunch protested her innocence but was convicted and given a 60-year sentence.
Years later, lawyers working with Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions found a key report that had been withheld from Bunch's original attorney and used new developments in fire science to establish that Bunch had been wrongly convicted. In 2012, she was freed and all charges against her were dismissed.
“Convicted criminals in Indiana receive an array of post-release assistance,” the Indianapolis Star noted recently. “The state provides parolees and people on probation with such things as help with job placement, housing, résumé training, Medicaid, food stamps and bus passes.”
But what does Indiana do to help someone like Bunch, erroneously accused and convicted and finally exonerated, who re-enters society after 17 years behind bars?
“They're walking out with nothing,” Bunch said in an interview last week. “I didn't even have a toothbrush when I walked out. If I didn't have family, I would have been homeless.”
No one even apologized, she said.
A bill authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, wouldn't prevent miscarriages of justice or guarantee official apologies, but it would at least see that wrongly convicted prisoners would receive some compensation. House Bill 1150 would pay those who served time before being exonerated by a court $50,000 a year for the time they spent behind bars.
The bill, which passed the House 96-0, awaits a hearing in the Senate's Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.
According to Elizabeth Powers, state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, 33 states and the District of Columbia have compensation statutes. Indiana is one of 17 that does not.
Occasionally, exonerated prisoners who are able to raise constitutional issues or show official misconduct have received large sums as compensation for the time they spent behind bars. A well-known Indiana example was Chris Parish, who was erroneously convicted for a robbery/shooting in Elkhart and eventually won $4.9 million in a federal court settlement. But there's another, more common outcome. Keith Cooper, who was also wrongly convicted and was pardoned by Gov. Eric Holcomb two years ago, has so far received nothing.
“Anyone who wins a civil award is in the minority,” said Bunch, who now heads an advocacy group for exonerated Indiana prisoners and who told her story during a House hearing on Steuerwald's bill. “The majority are those who have no compensation.”
Bunch said she has waited five years for action on a suit she filed alleging official misconduct in her case.
Though grateful to Steuerwald for taking on the issue, Powers says the bill should be amended to include exonerated prisoners like Bunch who have taken the only option they now have by filing suit against the state. It would be simple to prevent abuse. “In Kansas, what they do is say if you get compensation and then you win (a court) award, you can only can get above what you already were awarded by the state,” Powers said.
Fran Watson, a professor at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, told the Star a compensation system would only apply to a small number of cases. “This isn't an issue that's going to bankrupt the state,” she said.
Courts and law enforcement agencies are run by human beings who sometimes make mistakes, but those mistakes can be devastating. Advances in DNA testing and other types of crime science almost guarantee there will be cases like Bunch's in the future. The Senate should fine-tune then pass HB 1150.