Kristine Bunch, a client of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, languished behind bars for more than 17 years after she was arrested and charged with setting a fire that claimed the life of her three-year-old son, Anthony, on June 30, 1995, in a trailer home they shared in Decatur County, Indiana.
Shortly after the fire, Brian Frank, a state arson investigator, concluded that it had started in two places and that a liquid accelerant, such as kerosene or charcoal lighter fluid, had been used to start it at both locations. Six days later, based largely on Frank’s findings, Bunch was charged with arson and felony murder.
At her trial, which opened on February 26, 1996, Frank told the Decatur County Circuit Court jury: “There were two separate fires. One was in the south bedroom, along the south wall. That was caused by the liquid accelerant being present. The second fire originated at the doorway, the area of the doorway of the south bedroom into the living room. And there was a liquid accelerant poured across the floor of the living room that went to the front door of the mobile home.”
Frank’s testimony regarding the accelerant was corroborated by William Kinard, a forensic analyst with U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), who testified that he had identified “a heavy petroleum distillate” in flooring samples taken from both the living room where the fire was believed to have started and from the bedroom in which Anthony died.
Tom Hulse, an independent arson investigator, testified for the defense that the cause of the fire should have been “classified as undetermined” because there was “a probability” that it had been accidental.
On March 4, 1996, the jury found Bunch, then 22 and pregnant, guilty of murder and arson. The following April 1, Decatur County Circuit Court Judge John A. Westhafer sentenced her to concurrent prison terms of 60 years for murder and 50 years for arson.
On June 9, 1998, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the murder conviction — citing the presence of a heavy petroleum distillate in several locations — but vacated the arson conviction on double jeopardy grounds.
Bunch’s family retained an Indianapolis attorney, Hilary Bowe Ricks, who filed a petition for post-conviction relief with Westhafer in 2006. A few months later, Betsy Marks, a supporter of Bunch’s, wrote the Center on Wrongful Convictions requesting assistance. Dan Tran, a CWC volunteer from Suffolk University Law School, read Betsy’s letter, saw immediately that Bunch’s innocence claim might have merit, and referred the request to CWC staff attorney Jane Raley.
After discussing the case with Hilary Ricks and reading the trial transcript, Raley approached three fire forensic experts — Jamie McAllister, John DeHaan, and John Malooly — who concurred in the view that the arson testimony presented by the prosecution at Bunch’s trial in all likelihood had been wrong. Raley and CWC staff counsel Karen Daniel agreed to join Ricks in representing Bunch.
One of the first things they did was subpoena ATF files on the original investigation. In response, the ATF surrendered previously undisclosed documents showing that — contrary to the trial testimony of William Kinard, the ATF analyst — no heavy petroleum distillate had been found in the bedroom. No HPD, as it was known in ATF shorthand, was found anywhere in the trailer. Kerosene had been found only in the living room, where there was an innocent explanation for its presence: The family had used a kerosene heater in the living room during winter months, and when filling it sometimes spilled kerosene on the floor. The critical sample in Tony’s bedroom was completely negative.
Because Kinard’s trial testimony that a liquid accelerant had been found in both the bedroom and living room left an inescapable impression that the fire had been set, the ATF documents were highly exculpatory. Yet they had been withheld from Bunch’s trial counsel in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory materials to defense lawyers prior to trial.
In 2008, Raley, Daniel, and Ricks filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief, attaching affidavits from McAllister, DeHaan, Malooly, and Richard Hansen, an electrical engineer, in support of Bunch’s claim of innocence. The petition argued that she was entitled to a new trial because developments in fire science since her conviction constituted new evidence of her innocence and because her rights had been violated by the withholding of the ATF documents.
After Westhafer agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing, Ronald S. Safer, managing partner of the Chicago law firm of Schiff Hardin LLP and a member of the CWC Advisory Board, joined Bunch’s legal team, along with Kelly M. Warner, also of Schiff Hardin.
After the evidentiary hearing in October 2009, Westhafer took the case under advisement for eight months before denying relief on June 8, 2010. “While [Bunch] had new resources available to her at the post-conviction hearing, new experts do not create new evidence,” he wrote. “The issues raised and the conclusions reached — while packaged differently — remain basically the same as they were at trial in 1996.” He added that he did not believe the ATF documents would have changed the outcome of the trial.
The defense appealed, and Jon Laramore of Faegre Bake Daniels LLP, a leading Indianapolis law firm, joined the legal team. Safer argued the case before a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals of Indiana on July 13, 2011. Eight months later, on March 21, 2012, the court reversed the conviction, holding two-to-one that Bunch was entitled to a new trial both because the evolving fire science met the legal criteria for new evidence and because the undisclosed ATF evidence “directly contradict[ed] Kinard’s trial testimony supporting fires originating in two places.”
On August 8, 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously declined to disturb the Court of Appeals decision. Bunch, who had earned undergraduate degrees in English and anthropology from Ball State University in prison, was released on her own recognizance 24 days later — 17 years, one month, and 16 days after her wrongful arrest. She walked out of the Decatur County Jail, where she had been sent to await retrial, and into the arms of her family who had steadfastly supported her throughout her ordeal.
Eight days before Christmas 2012, the prosecution dropped the charges. Bunch later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit which was pending as of October 2015.
— Rob Warden