Bad Arson Science Frees Mom After Serving 16 Years

What a nightmare. In 1996, Kristin Bunch was 21, pregnant and living in a mobile home with her three year old. A sudden fire engulfed the trailer, killing her three year old. The police said it was arson and claimed she went into her son's bedroom, doused it with a liquid accelerant like kerosene or diesel fuel and set it on fire. She was charged and convicted of felony murder and arson and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Arson investigators testified at her trial that burn patterns indicated the fire was arson.

After 16 years in prison, she was released on bond today pending a retrial, and went home with her jubilant mother and now 16 year old son (whom she gave birth to in prison.) In March, the Indiana Court of Appeals set aside her conviction, finding it was based on invalid, outdated science and the prosecutor had withheld critical evidence at her trial. (Great work by Kristin's post-conviction team, including the Center on Wrongful Convictions.)[More..}

The opinion is here. The court bases its ruling on both new fire victim toxicology evidence and the state's withholding of evidence.

We conclude the fire victim toxicology evidence does constitute newly-discovered evidence and the post-conviction court clearly erred in denying Bunch relief on this claim. We also conclude the State‟s failure to turn over a report from the ATF testing of floor samples violates Brady and the post-conviction court also clearly erred in denying Bunch relief on this claim. Because either of these two errors warrants a new trial, we need not address the remaining issues. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

The opinion is 48 pages, here are the highlights:

At the jury trial, no witness testified to seeing Bunch set the fire or hearing her talk about doing so; there was no evidence Bunch had purchased a liquid accelerant and no evidence of flammable liquid on the clothes she was wearing; and there was no testimony regarding a motive for her setting the fire. The State‟s case relied largely on expert testimony describing two points of origin for the fire from visual inspection and testing of floor samples showing evidence of a liquid accelerant.

...There was no direct evidence at Bunch‟s trial that she set multiple fires in the mobile home through use of an accelerant. No one saw her set the fire or heard her refer to setting the fire, there was no evidence she had purchased a liquid accelerant, and there was no motive offered for her to intentionally set a fire. McAllister‟s testimony shows the State‟s theory of fire purposefully set in an open room could not have caused the injuries from which Tony was shown to have died. McAllister‟s conclusion is, if not entirely consistent with the eyewitness testimony, at least not inconsistent with it: that several witnesses testified they saw fire on the floor does not mean the fire started there; testimony regarding large amounts of thick smoke and evidence Tony inhaled soot is consistent with an under-ventilated fire; and testimony that there was no fire on the living room floor in the early stages of the fire is consistent with an accidental fire beginning in the ceiling in the south bedroom.

The largely circumstantial evidence at trial did not overwhelmingly prove Bunch‟s guilt ... [Defense witness ]McAllister‟s fire victim toxicology analysis evidence, although not definitively able to disprove that Bunch committed a crime, at least creates a reasonable doubt that she committed the crime with which she was charged: knowingly using an accelerant to start a fire in the living room of her mobile home.

...The State‟s evidence was largely circumstantial, none of Bunch‟s statements are actually inculpatory, and the toxicology evidence supports her defense of innocence. We conclude it is probable this evidence would produce a different result if offered on retrial.

In addition, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy testified at trial that the toddler died from smoke inhalation “within reasonable medical certainty.” The fire victim toxicology evidence presented in the post-conviction proceeding showed that wasn't the case. He died from the fire itself.

In order to get a new trial based on newly discovered evidence in Indiana, a defendant must meet 9 hurdles. It must show:

(1) the evidence has been discovered since the trial; (2) it is material and relevant; (3) it is not cumulative; (4) it is not merely impeaching; (5) it is not privileged or incompetent; (6) due diligence was used to discover it in time for trial; (7) the evidence is worthy of credit; (8) it can be produced upon a retrial of the case; and (9) it will probably produce a different result at retrial.

The appeals court found:

....Bunch has met her burden of proving the fire victim toxicology analysis evidence meets all nine requirements of newly-discovered evidence. We therefore hold the post-conviction court clearly erred in denying her petition for post-conviction relief on this claim.

On the Brady issue, the state failed to turn over the complete ATF file which contained exculpatory evidence. It didn't disclose the ATF Laboratory’s bench notes, which contradicted the ATF chemist’s testimony as to 2 of the samples.

The State asserted at oral argument that it is the State‟s right and obligation to decide what evidence in its possession is favorable to the accused and therefore required to be turned over to the defense in discovery. We do not disagree that it is initially the State‟s call, but we note that the State then has to live with the consequences of its decision. The State has the affirmative duty to turn over exculpatory evidence even in the absence of a specific request by the defendant.

The Court found the state suppressed the complete ATF file; the suppressed material was covered by Brady; and it was material.

The State concedes it has the obligation to turn over Brady evidence and concedes it did not turn over the entire ATF file to Bunch prior to her trial; it therefore failed to satisfy its obligation in this case. We conclude the State suppressed the complete ATF file.

...the State proceeded primarily on the theory that there were multiple fires in the mobile home, and because multiple, non-communicating fires are more likely than not to be incendiary, Bunch was responsible for setting the fires.

...The undisclosed evidence directly contradicts Kinard‟s trial testimony supporting fires originating in two places. Thus, there is a reasonable probability that but for the prosecutorial failure to disclose this evidence favorable to Bunch, the result of the trial would have been different.

The court said these two issues, the new fire victim toxicology evidence and the Brady violation, are enough for a new trial -- so even though Bunch had additional arguments, it wasn't necessary to review them.

The post-conviction court clearly erred in determining Bunch was not entitled to a new trial on the basis of the fire victim toxicology analysis evidence, as the evidence meets each of the nine requirements to be newly-discovered evidence. The post-conviction court also clearly erred in determining Bunch was not entitled to a new trial on the basis of a Brady violation by the State.

It took from March until today for Kristin Bunch to be released on bail pending retrial. Is the state really going to retry her? It says it will, but I suspect (and hope) it thinks better of it. How will it get a conviction based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt when the fire is of undetermined cause?

The end result: A mother who lost her 3 year old due to a tragic accidental fire was accused and convicted of murder and spent 16 years in prison, during which time she gave birth to another child who was then taken from her. A 16 year old has grown up without the presence of his mother.

"It's kind of hard growing up without a mother," Trenton Bunch said. "I'm just really excited."

As her lawyer said today:

The court of appeals made it very clear in its ruling that they believe that on the evidence that was presented in this courtroom a couple of years ago, that it was likely that a jury would acquit," said attorney Ron Safer. "I would hope the prosecutor's office would have accepted the appeals court's ruling."

Is anyone else humming, "In an Indiana town.... on an Indiana night.

Welcome home, Kristin.

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  • Display: Sort:
    The thought that the state would/could (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:28:36 PM EST
    not turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense - merely because the defense did not know to ask  for it (you don't know what you don't know, duh) - just makes the hair on the back of my neck rise up.

    In some cases (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by lousy1 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 12:24:35 AM EST
    the criminals are the zealots of the state. It's unfortunate that the self serving bureaucrats escape prison.

    So, the prosecutor intentionally withheld... (5.00 / 4) (#5)
    by Jello333 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 12:42:05 AM EST
    ... exculpatory evidence, and maybe because of that this woman was convicted and spent 16 years of her life behind bars? I hear stuff like this a lot. A person convicted partly or solely because of prosecutorial misconduct. So here's my question: WHY DO NO PROSECUTORS EVER WIND UP IN PRISON?! Tell me why they should not spend the same amount of time behind bars as the innocent people they railroaded?

    I agree. (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by lentinel on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 05:06:07 AM EST
    Is the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence from a criminal trail not a crime?

    If it is a crime, as you ask, why are these prosecutors not in prison?

    And if it is not a crime, why isn't it?
    It certainly is an invitation to malfeasance by ambitious and unscrupulous prosecutors.


    Slow Train Coming (none / 0) (#9)
    by P3P3P3P3 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 08:22:58 AM EST
    it took a while to get the idea across that the State should pay for costs if it loses, may be light years away with that one

    Thank you Jeralyn for always putting these (5.00 / 3) (#7)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 07:48:52 AM EST
    stories up on this site.  I sometimes have a problem with trusting too much and assuming that people who have authority over my life will always do the next right thing.  I need reminders that if I'm ever hauled in or accused of anything the first thing I need in this country is the best lawyer I can afford, before I even think about opening my mouth at all.

    Wow (none / 0) (#1)
    by bmaz on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 10:31:03 PM EST
    Nice story. Sixteen years too long in the making, but nice story.

    There's too much of this (none / 0) (#2)
    by Slayersrezo on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 10:43:43 PM EST
    There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of false arson convictions setting in jail in Texas alone. And that doesn't seem to be about to change soon because the state has dug in its heels about fire evidence. There's probably fewer victims in Indiana, but as usual the state loves to dig in its heels and refuse to admit error.

    If this woman gets out it will probably be five to ten years before she gets any money for the waste of her life, and I doubt it will change things for other arson defendants in the future or any other of Indiana's falsely convicted.

    Our current justice system is sick. This isn't even a "red or blue" state issue, Massachusetts and California have the same problems with admitting error and changing policies, just to an arguably lesser extent.

    Todd Willingham (none / 0) (#12)
    by Chuck0 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 11:59:37 AM EST
    is no longer sitting in a Texas prison cell. He left his cell for the last time on Feb. 17, 2004.

    Willingham (none / 0) (#16)
    by lawstudent on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 08:08:39 PM EST
    First thing I thought of when I read this post was Todd Willingham.  For those who haven't already read it, the New Yorker did a great job writing about his case, which had bad arson science that resulted in his conviction and ultimate execution.  

    You can read more here (none / 0) (#17)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 04:04:52 AM EST
    I think you meant (none / 0) (#18)
    by Chuck0 on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 11:02:52 AM EST
    Cameron Todd Willingham

    I did, don't know (none / 0) (#19)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 01:08:35 PM EST
    where the Michael came from. The post in the link has it correct.

    R Dean Taylor (none / 0) (#8)
    by P3P3P3P3 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 08:17:35 AM EST
    Indiana Wants Me, I can't Go Back There.....


    Mike Tyson's theme song....

    I was wondering Jeralyn (none / 0) (#10)
    by lentinel on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 10:45:54 AM EST
    if the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution is a crime or not?

    If it is a crime, has anyone been actually jailed for it?

    And if it isn't a crime, why isn't it?

    It probably is a crime. (none / 0) (#11)
    by Chuck0 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 11:56:37 AM EST
    Unfortunately, if committed by a prosecutor in the employ of the State, SCOTUS has granted them absolute immunity, making whether it's a crime or not irrelevant. And so long as these wastes of space continue to have absolute immunity, it will  never stop. They don't care if it's a crime. They don't care whose life is ruined or wasted. They get a free pass.

    It seems (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by lentinel on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 12:14:59 PM EST
    unimaginable that Scotus would or could do that - grant absolute immunity to prosecutors that deliberately withhold evidence that they know or have reason to believe would exonerate a defendant.

    Can you cite the case in which Scotus laid that one upon us?

    If these people can actually go about free, maybe there should be a way to track them - the way they do with sex offenders.


    There are numerous cases dating back many years. (none / 0) (#14)
    by Chuck0 on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 04:21:59 PM EST
    Look at Connick v. Thompson or Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, where amazingly, the court upheld the argument that you have "no constitutional right NOT to be framed."

    Thanks (none / 0) (#15)
    by lentinel on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 04:41:13 PM EST
    I'm going to look these up.
    It should prove enlightening and disturbing.

    Offhand, I might see a difference between a defendant not having a constitutional right not to be framed - and a prosecutor having a right to frame whomever they wish.

    I wish they could tar and feather those folks.


    What's especially frightening... (none / 0) (#20)
    by heidelja on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 01:53:45 PM EST
    ...is that it had to be appealed! I guess this gives legitimacy to calling lower courts inferior courts!