A lawyer for an Indiana woman who has spent 15 years in prison after she was convicted of setting the fire that killed her 3-year-old son told a panel of judges Wednesday that new science proves the fire was an accident, not arson.
“Kristine Bunch is innocent. No arson occurred in this case,” Ron Safer told three judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals. Safer, who is working pro bono with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to get a new trial for Bunch, also told the judges that evidence that was withheld from her 1996 trial undermines the state’s case against her.
A Decatur County jury convicted the Greensburg woman of murder and arson in 1996 and she was sentenced to 60 years in prison. The same judge who sentenced her then denied her petition for post-conviction relief based on new evidence filed in 2006.
“The world’s experts came in and testified about this,” Safer said in an interview earlier this week. “I don’t think he opened his mind.”
Prosecutors said Bunch poured kerosene in her son’s bedroom and the living room of their mobile home and lit it on fire. No formal motive was ever given at the trial, court briefs say. But prosecutors said that Bunch had asked a friend to take custody of her son Tony about a year before the fire so she could “get away from it all” and made inconsistent statements about the fire.
Safer said fire investigation has changed since the mid-1990s, and investigators now have a better idea of how fires work. The burn patterns that were interpreted at the time as signs that kerosene had been poured in the mobile home are now understood to be marks left by flashover, when virtually all combustible material in an enclosed area ignites, according to court briefs.
Safer also said another point that disproves the fire began in the bedroom is the fact that Tony died of smoke inhalation. He said that if the fire had started in his room, Tony would have died of burns before inhaling enough carbon monoxide to be fatal.
“The fire could not have been intentionally set,” Safer told the judges. “When the evidence shows that is not how the fire was set, you must grant a new trial,” he added.
But the judges seemed more concerned about the withheld evidence.
A lab report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found no trace of kerosene in the boy’s bedroom, despite investigators’ contention that part of the fire had been set there, Safer said.
But that report was not admitted into evidence during Bunch’s initial trial even though her lawyer had asked prosecutors for any evidence that might tend to clear her. Prosecutors may not have known about the report, but the ATF did, Safer said, and the state should have known about it and released it.
Deputy Attorney General Ian McLean argued largely that the scientific advances claimed by Bunch’s attorneys were exaggerated and too inconclusive to change the outcome of the trial. He told judges one defense expert presented some of the same evidence at trial, but experts now were more sophisticated.
“These are … claims piled upon evidence that can’t support it,” McLean said.
McLean also pointed out inconsistencies in Bunch’s story, inconsistencies that Safer said likely were caused by confusion from carbon monoxide poisoning. McLean also repeated prosecutors’ claims that Bunch had blocked the open doorway of her son’s room with a chair, but Safer claimed photo evidence showed the chair was actually standing against a wall that had burned.
Court briefs filed by Bunch’s attorneys also contend that investigators ignored key evidence, including a history of electrical problems in the home, and the fact that a previous occupant had used a kerosene heater in the living room, which could have accounted for positive test results there.
Safer said the case wouldn’t stop even if the Court of Appeals sides with the state.
“We’ll go to the Indiana Supreme Court. If we don’t get the right ruling there, we’ll take it to the federal court,” Safer said in an interview. “She’s innocent. We’re not going to let this rest.”
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