GREENSBURG, Ind. – Kristine Bunch hugged her mother and her teenage son, basking in the warm Indiana sunshine for the first time Wednesday afternoon following 16 years behind bars for a murder she said all along she didn't commit.
Jailers released the grinning 38-year-old woman, who had traded her olive green jail clothes for a new dress, less than a half-hour after a Decatur County judge granted her $5,000 cash bail at the suggestion of prosecutors. The state plans to try her again on murder and arson charges for the 1995 fire that killed her 3-year-old son.
The whirlwind that followed her arrest in 1996, when she was accused of setting the blaze that destroyed her Greensburg mobile home and claimed her son Tony's life, seemed like a bad dream at the time, Bunch said. "I was in shock," she said.
Being released from prison was like a dream, too, but "in a good way," she said.
"Now, it's like I can't believe it's happening," Bunch said.
The Indiana Court of Appeals last week ordered the local court to allow Bunch's release on bond while she awaits her second trial. The appeals court ordered a new trial in March, finding that the evidence used to convict her was outdated, weak and wrongly withheld from the defense.
Bunch's attorney, Ron Safer, said prosecutors "did exactly the right thing" by asking for a low bond, but he was disappointed they still planned another trial in light of scientific advances that he said suggest there was no real evidence of arson.
Prosecutors have had little to say except that they are seeking a gag order to restrict attorneys' public comments on the case. A hearing on their request is scheduled for Aug. 30, and Bunch was ordered to attend.
In the meantime, Bunch said she will live with her 58-year-old mother, Susan Hubbard, and her 16-year-old son, Trenton, in nearby Columbus, Ind. The family was taking Bunch out Wednesday night for her first meal besides prison food in years, at a seafood restaurant in Columbus.
Bunch said she looked forward to doing the everyday things that most people take for granted, like shopping, eating out, and using the Internet, which she has never seen.
"I can learn how to Facebook," she said. "All my friends tell me they're on Facebook."
But of all the technological changes since she was last out of prison, Bunch said cellphones, which have evolved from unwieldy boxes with thick antennas to sleek little machines, impress her the most.
"I'm amazed by the cellphones," she said.
Television and frequent visits by her mother and son kept her aware of changes in the outside world. "He introduced me to Harry Potter," Bunch said of her son. Now, she hopes to be able to teach the teen how to drive.
Bunch was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 1996 after a Decatur County jury convicted her of murder and arson. The same judge who sentenced her denied a 2006 petition for post-conviction relief based on new evidence.
Prosecutors said Bunch poured kerosene in the bedroom of her son, Tony, and the living room of their mobile home and lit it on fire. No clear motive was ever established, but they said Bunch had asked a friend to take custody of the boy about a year before the fire so she could "get away from it all" and that she had made inconsistent statements about the blaze.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions said investigators at the time misinterpreted burn patterns as indicating an accelerant and that there was no evidence of arson. They also argued that advances in toxicology showed the child would have died from fire, not smoke inhalation, had the blaze been set in his room.
"It was horrible, but I knew if I held on to my faith that justice would prevail. The truth usually has a way of coming out," Hubbard, Bunch's mother, said.
Bunch said a prison ministry helped her maintain her faith while she was in prison. "I knew it was going to work out in the end," she said.
While locked up, Bunch earned her GED and a college degree. She said she plans to go to law school if acquitted. She wants to work in criminal law, representing inmates who have been wrongfully convicted.
"There's still a lot of work to be done. There's still a lot of people in my situation," Bunch said.
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