Kristine Bunch, 38, walks out of her Decatur County Circuit Court hearing on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 still in handcuffs after being granted a new trial for her 1996 convinction in the murder of her three-year-old son, and for arson. Bunch, who served 16 years at the Indiana Women's Prison, was taken to the Decatur County Jail for processing and released to await a new trial, thanks to the help of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwest University School of Law. Bunch sais she is l
Greensburg, IN (written by Robert King/Indianapolis Star) -- A mom who has been behind bars since 1996 accused of murdering her toddler son in an arson fire, walked free from jail Wednesday after new evidence was presented that led a court to grant her a new trial.
A sheriff led Kristine Bunch, wearing a new dress and black patent leather shoes and carrying her prison clothes in a Wal-Mart bag, out the door of the jail. He let go of her arm and then said quietly: "You're free."
Bunch, 38, turned down the sidewalk and went straight to her mother, Susan Hubbard. They had a long embrace.
Next in line for Bunch was her son, 16-year-old Trenton, who had never visited his mother outside of prison, who has never slept under the same roof with her except for his very first night. Bunch went back to the Indiana Women's Prison the day after giving birth at a local hospital.
Authorities say Bunch set fire to her mobile home in a blaze that killed her 3-year-old son, Tony.
Bunch, then 22, was sentenced to 60 years. But on Wednesday, at 38, she was released, pending a new trial that was granted in March by the Indiana Court of Appeals.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law took up Bunch's case in 2007 and was joined in the cause by Chicago attorney Ron Safer, whose Schiff Hardin firm worked on the case at no cost. In 2009, they presented new evidence to the appeals court based, in part, on technological advances in fire investigations.
The new evidence, Safer said, made it impossible for the fire to have happened the way the state alleged, that some test results the state provided were simply incorrect. In actuality, tests showed that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Safer said. Had the fire been set with an accelerant in the manner prosecutors alleged, he would have died from burns.
On Wednesday, Senior Circuit Judge W. Michael Wilke, based on the fact that Bunch's family put up bond money for her in 1996, said the words she and her family had waited 16 years to hear: "The defendant will be released from the Department of Corrections."
Decatur County prosecutors were unavailable for comment. Bunch has a court appearance next week. But, Safer said, "Today she is a free woman, and we are determined to make sure that she has spent her last day behind bars."
Bunch said she was initially in a state of shock upon being sentenced to 60 years for arson and the murder of her son. She likened it to a bad dream that wouldn't end. Upon her release, Bunch was joyful but expressed no bitterness over a conviction she has always maintained was a mistake.
"I haven't been by myself," she said. "I had a family that stood by me. I had people that believed in me and stepped up. And you can't receive blessings like that and be bitter."
While in prison, Bunch said she took part in Kairos prison ministry and became a Catholic. She earned undergraduate degrees in English and anthropology from Ball State University. And now she has dreams of going to law school, focusing on criminal law and joining a wrongful conviction team.
"I want to give back. I've been very blessed," she said. "One day I want to fight for others because others fought for me."
First, Bunch said she wants to get reacquainted with her family.
Trenton already has a long list of things he wants to do with his mom.
He wants to take a trip to the zoo, go to a concert, have her watch him run track in the spring if he makes the team.
"I want to do the stuff that I should have been able to do a long time ago," he said, "and never got to do."
Initially, though, Trenton may have to help his mother navigate her 16-year time warp. When she was last free, cellphones were the size of shoeboxes, and she was amazed at the tiny devices her friends and her legal team were toting, that half the courtroom had to cough up at the judge's order before her hearing began.
And then there's the Internet -- she's heard about it but never seen it. There's no access in the prison.
"My son said I'm going to teach you how to Facebook," she said, "and we're going to look at the Internet."
But Bunch also relishes the idea of much simpler pleasures. She wants to watch her son sleep.
"I've never gotten to see my son sleep except for little naps when he would come visit me," she said. "I want to be able to bounce in his room all night and look at him while he's asleep."