The year was 1995. Kristine Bunch was a 22-year-old single mother, wrongly arrested and charged and ultimately sentenced to 60 years in prison.
For an accident.
The smoke woke her up. Flames everywhere.
She couldn't get to Tony's room, so she ran outside and busted out the window.
The neighbors stopped her from climbing back in. She waited for the firefighters to get him. She got in the ambulance.
They told her they had him.
When she got to the emergency room, they told her Tony didn't make it.
Everything went wrong.
The police jumped to the conclusion that it was arson based on a scientific report that turned out to be wrong.
She was arrested for murder that night.
Her appointed lawyer showed up three and a half weeks later to urge her to take a plea for arson and she would be out in seven years.
She was not interested in a plea.
She found out she was pregnant in prison.
She gave birth in handcuffs, an emergency cesarean section, and spent 36 hours with her son. The evidence at trial was forensic — evidence of accelerant in Tony's room; testimony from a fireman that Tony's room was blocked by a chair.
"This mother was tired of being a mother," the prosecutor told the jury, and even though there was no evidence of neglect of any kind, they convicted her of murder and arson.
Kristine earned her associates and bachelor's degrees in prison.
She received her paralegal certification.
She filed Freedom of Information Act requests to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. She taught herself fire science.
She gave her baby to her 18-year-old brother to raise.
Five years in, a fellow inmate reached out to her public defender, Hilary Bowe Ricks.
From Hilary, Kristine found her way to the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Law School and eventually to Ron Safer, whose law firm, Schiff Hardin, took over the costs for the experts.
Ten years after she found her first lawyer, the Indiana appeals court found that the newly discovered evidence of fire science, coupled with the failure of the prosecution to hand over copies of the full reports, required her convictions to be reversed.
Kristine Bunch went to prison on April 1, 1996.
She was released on Aug. 22, 2012. The charges were finally dismissed in December 2012, and as I write this, Kristine is finally hoping to clear her record. Seventeen years, and she is still lucky.
When she got out of prison, Kristine learned that she had power.
She told her story, and people listened.
In Wyoming, she helped change a law that had restricted newly discovered evidence of innocence to two years.
In Indiana, she told her story and the state legislature in 2019 enacted a law providing for compensation for individuals who are wrongly convicted.
This is one woman's story, but there are so many others.
Since 1989, some 2,991 inmates have been fully exonerated; of those, fewer than 300 are women. New DNA evidence helps mostly men in rape cases and stranger crimes.
In 40% of the cases where women are cleared — most of them involving accidental injuries to loved ones — the ultimate finding is that no crime occurred.
Whether wrongly convicted or not, the women Kristine served with have a difficult road to travel when they are released.
Kristine is helping them as an outreach coordinator for Interrogating Justice, a nonprofit that provides information and referrals for those who are impacted by the criminal justice system (full disclosure, I'm a new board member).
And there are lawyers across the country, and law students, who donate their time to the cause of justice.
Just not enough of them.
Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. Whether on the pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post or as a television commentator on countless news programs on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, she has tackled legal matters, women's concerns, national politics and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.