This case was and is not a death penalty case but the entire time I was researching it I could not stop thinking about the Todd Willingham case. If you're interested I have blogged about that case in the past but I will give a short summary. Todd Willingham was from Texas and was executed in 2004 for the arson murders of his three daughters. There was evidence present prior to his execution that the evidence used against him was faulty and yet the state of Texas carried out his execution. Since that time it has been almost completely proven that the man was innocent of the charges. I have said before that while I can nearly guarantee that innocent people have been executed in our history that when it comes to modern times the only one I can say that about for sure is Willingham. The standards that were used in his case to prove arson in the murder of his children had already been proven to be false many years before his conviction and yet were still being relied upon. The case against Kristine Bunch is not exactly like the Willingham case aside from it not being a death penalty case. There was evidence in her case that investigators had altered information to in essence lie to a jury to prove the fire that killed her three year old son was arson. I heard an exonerated person on television not so long ago say “It is easy to get in... and hard to get out.” Kristine Bunch found out just how true that statement is.
On June 30, 1995 twenty-two year old Kristine Bunch was awakened in her sleep by smoke in her Greensburg Indiana mobile home. She would tell authorities several times that when she woke up and noticed the smoke she got out of her room and saw flames. She stated that she attempted to put the fire out and get her three year old son, Anthony, out but when both of those efforts failed she left to get help. She would have what authorities would call minor burns on her arms and be treated at the local hospital. A firefighter attempted to go into Anthony's room to rescue him but would say that a piece of furniture and the fire was blocking the way and he had to retreat. Once the fire was put out Anthony's body would be recovered from the home. A medical examination would show that Anthony died from smoke inhalation.
Assistant Chief investigator for the Indiana State Fire Marshall's office, Brian Frank, went in the home and quickly decided that the fire had started in two places in the home, in the front room and near the entrance to Anthony's room. He would argue that an accelerant had been used.
Six days after the fire a pregnant, Kristine Bunch would be arrested and charged with arson and felony murder. Her trial would begin on February 26, 1996. Brian Frank would testify along with ATF investigator, William Kinard who would agree with Frank, at least on the stand. The only other real “evidence” against Kristine from the prosecution would come from a lady named Connie Land. Land was the manager of the mobile home park in which Kristine lived. She would say that a few days after the fire when Kristine went back to the area and apparently thanked those who had helped her and been there for her that Kristine had said that someone had come into the home in the middle of the night and “sprinkled” her with gasoline or some sort of accelerant.
The defense argued many things. There appeared to be no motive given, even by the prosecution. They could find no one who not only had seen Kristine set the fire, but no one ever said she talked badly of her child or mentioned anything about fire, nor was there any evidence of any flammable liquid on her body or her clothing that had been taken. They also pointed out that the home had had electrical problems in the past and their expert, Tom Hulse, stated that was more likely the cause than any fire with accelerants and that the cause should have been listed as undetermined. The defense also argued that if kerosene had been found in the front room sample that could have easily been explained as throughout the winter the family used a kerosene heater and it was filled in that area. As far as the testimony from Connie Land? Kristine's mother stated that she was with her daughter the entire time they were at the mobile home park and her daughter had never said any such thing. She claimed that there were hard feelings between the two families because she had filed some sort of litigation against Land at some point. Regardless of the feelings between the families there was no evidence that Kristine had any sort of accelerant on her body or clothing.
Regardless of the evidence, or lack there of, on March 4, 1996 Kristine Bunch was found guilty. On April 1, 1996 she would be sentenced to sixty years for the felony murder and fifty years for the arson charge. The sentences were to be served concurrently, meaning at the same time.
In June of 1998 Kristine's attorney's filed an appeal. The court upheld the murder charge but vacated the arson conviction stating that since the initial charge was “felony murder” that the arson was included in that charge and to then add it as an additional charge constituted double jeopardy.
Another appeal was filed in June of 2010. It argued first that there was new arson science available that disputed claims made in the trial but more than that the appeal argued that a Brady Violation had been made. For those unfamiliar with that term, a Brady Violation is when a prosecutor or their team purposely hide or suppresses information from the defense that is favorable to them. In this case Kristine's attorneys argued that the ATF investigator, William Kinard had what appeared to be several versions of his report, with only his last one being shown to the defense or testified to. They had found that in Kinard's first report indicated that no signs of accelerant were found in the bedroom doorway and that evidence of kerosene was found in the front room area but it seems exactly where they had conceded that it would be found. They claimed Kinard then had a typed report that had handwritten notes that altered some of the original findings. And yet a third report was made in which stated that accelerants were found in every sample just as Brian Frank had testified. The appeal was denied but her attorneys appealed that decision.
On March 21, 2012 the new appeals court ruled to reverse Kristine's conviction based both on the new science and the Brady Violation. They ruled that she was entited to a new trial.
In September of 2012 Kristine was released from prison after more than sixteen years. In December of 2012 all charges were dropped. Kristen would file a civil suit against the investigators in her trial in 2014 and as far as I can tell that case is still pending.
Kristine had given birth to a son soon after her conviction. His name was Trenton and her mother took custody of him. Upon her release he decided to stay living with Kristine's mother as that was the only real mother he knew. The suit that she filed not only alleges that her freedom was taken unjustly but that she was prevented from not only raising her child but having a meaningful relationship with him.
When it comes to arson cases I am the most leery of the results found by investigators as it seems that the science and the results behind it change often. The bigger problem than the changes however it seems are the investigators that refuse to agree with the changes and continue to testify as expert witnesses against defendants. When it comes to murders that involve guns or knives or even things where DNA is available I can go with results but cases like these that are based solely on the word of someone, despite it being a “trained” profession are ones I just cannot always get on board with.