Bill to compensate exonerated prisoners moves on to state Senate

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An effort is underway at the state capitol to help exonerated prisoners in Indiana. One woman fighting for it is bringing her story from prison to the statehouse.

Kristine Bunch was just 21 years old when her Greensburg home caught fire in 1995, leaving her 3-year-old son, Tony, dead.

It didn't take long before she found herself behind bars, accused of arson and murder, and sentenced to 60 years. She was pregnant with her second child at the time.

"I was shocked, you don't expect it," Bunch said. "There are no words to talk about what it's like to go in there because you are, you are essentially stripped of everything."

While in prison, she gave birth to her second son, Trent, maintained weekly visits with him and worked on furthering her education. But she didn't give up her fight to prove her innocence.

"I wrote everyone I possibly could because you know that you need help to get back into court. I told everybody I'm innocent, I don't know why accelerant was found in my child's bedroom. That just makes no sense to me. And I need somebody to help me," she said.

Her case caught the attention of a local attorney and The Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions. Her attorneys argued new evidence about the fire from new investigative techniques. After about 17 years behind bars, Bunch's conviction was overturned and she was left facing the world more than a decade behind it.

"The big challenge is you're trying to catch up on technology, you're trying to explain to people that you have a 17, 20, 24, 27 year gap and that you really were working and you really were educating and doing things during that time, but you no longer have a conviction," Bunch said.

She said she walked out of prison with a bag filled with only her prison uniform and shoes. Things like using cards more than cash, automatic faucets and using a cell phone were all new. She had to go back to get her learner's permit.

"It's hard to figure out what you're supposed to do, who you can turn to and literally, there's nothing to turn to in the state," Bunch said.

But now the state is taking steps to compensate those proven innocent, who are wrongfully incarcerated. Lawmakers filed House Bill 1150.

"No there's not a lot but there's a few. Actually what the major impetus is that the DNA has established innocence for a lot of people. So actually it will be a diminishing population because DNA is now used at the beginning of the process not the end," said State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, who sponsored the bill.

Bunch testified during committee hearings and this week the bill passed the house with a 96-0 vote.

"Interestingly enough if you've been incarcerated for a crime you did commit, when you're released you can participate in wraparound services, help finding a job, help with housing, those types of services, but an exoneree is not eligible," State Rep. Steuerwald said. "So in the bill we made sure that exonerees are eligible for those same services."

The bill would also give people who are innocent the chance to bring a lawsuit or receive $50,000 per year they were behind bars.

According to the Innocence Project, Indiana is one of 17 states without a compensation statute. Bunch said the bill is a big step, but she would like to see all exonerees eligible for compensation regardless of litigation.

Bunch has filed lawsuits against investigators, saying a report was falsified.

But right now, she plans to keep helping other exonerees through a non-profit she founded, Justis 4 Justus, and continue fighting at the statehouse.

"I would never want to repeat it but I but I am grateful that it made me into the person that I am now. someone that's willing to step up and speak for somebody else that doesn't have a voice," Bunch said.

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