GRAYSLAKE – Kristine Bunch served 17 years of a 60 year sentence for a crime she didn't commit. Bunch was falsely accused of murdering her young son by arson.
Tony, 3, had died trapped in their trailer home bedroom during an early morning fire on June 29, 1995 in Decatur County, Ind. Bunch, who was pregnant when she went to county jail, maintained her innocence while she missed the first 17 years of her second son’s life.
Bunch shared her story with the public April 13 during “Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction of a Woman" at College of Lake County.
Bunch said, “I wrote hundreds of letters. I kept pushing forward. I took classes, got degrees. The [jail’s] superintendent encouraged me to do research in the law library, so I was there every day. I wanted out more than anything in the world. So many people believed in me – I just couldn't not get what I wanted.”
No one listened to her, until the Women’s Project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University came across her case. With the project's help, in 2012, she was exonerated – proven to be innocent of murdering her son.
The presentation at CLC was sponsored by Lake County organizations including the Lake County Bar Association, Lake County Bar Foundation, the College of Lake County, the League of Women Voters, the Association of Women Attorneys of Lake County and AAUW Waukegan.
Gayle Miler, board president of the Association of Women Attorneys of Lake County and department co-Chair for the Paralegal Studies program at College of Lake County, said it was great so many organizations found the topic of women’s exonerations meaningful.
“We should all be talking about it,” Miler said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Bunch said she wants to raise awareness for others who are innocent by sharing her story.
Judy Royal, co-founder of the Women’s Project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said women who have served time for crimes they didn’t commit are frequently convicted without a motive or proof of psychological disturbance. They also frequently gave statements to the police while grieving, Royal said.
Bunch is a textbook case. In "Letters from Prison: Voices of Women Murderers" by Jennifer Furio, published while Bunch was still incarcerated, Furio wrote that Bunch’s case was a miscarriage of justice.
Ninety-two of 1,215 known exonerations since 1989 were women’s cases, Royal said. DNA evidence rarely plays a part in women’s exonerations; it played a role in 31 percent of men’s cases and only eight percent of women’s cases, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In 18 percent of men’s exonerations, no crime occurred. No crime occurred in 65 percent of women’s exonerations.
In 35.9 percent of women’s exoneration cases, analysts who testified made claims unsupported by scientific evidence, Royal said.
Many of those factors were true of Bunch’s case, according to Jane Raley, co-legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, who helped Bunch prove her innocence.
“The prosecution of Kristine is a tale of mistakes, missing information and suppressed evidence,” Raley said. “We were struck by the fact that Kristine had no prior [criminal] record at all, no history of mental illness, no witnesses or motive, and had never confessed. The trailer had been uninsured.”
Raley said at the time of the fire at Kristine’s trailer, many arson investigators relied on folk wisdom and beliefs that were disproven by science in the 1990s. Patterns of a fire accelerant such as diesel fuel were found at the scene of the fire, which is evidence used to support an arson theory. When Raley took on Bunch’s case, the previous owners of the trailer revealed they had frequently spilled fuel in the trailer.
A chemist had also testified that there had been traces of an accelerant in the bedroom, when the data from the original, unaltered report showed none.
The cause of death of Bunch’s son Tony was carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of a slow-burning fire that started in the ceiling, Raley said.
Bunch is now living in Chicago and attempting to adjust to a world of smart phones and automatic sinks, she said. She is co-writing a book about the judicial system and where it falls short, and plans to go to law school.
For information, visit www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions.