Indiana woman convicted in son's arson death to be freed

An Indiana woman convicted of setting a 1995 fire that killed her 3-year-old son is to be released Wednesday for the first time after 16 years in prison.

A Decatur County judge set bail for Kristine Bunch at $5,000 cash Wednesday while she awaits a new trial on murder and arson charges stemming from a mobile home fire that some experts now say appears to have been accidental.

Bunch said after the hearing that she never gave up hope "because I knew this was gonna work out in the end." She said she appreciated her supporters and will be going to stay with her mother in Columbus.

"It's overwhelming to be able to do anything," she said before being led out in shackles.

Her attorney, Ron Safer, said, "I think the state did the right thing." But he added, "I'm disappointed that they want to have a new trial."

Bunch's case drew the attention of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. Experts there questioned the evidence used to convict her, saying scientific advances since the 1990s suggested that no crime was committed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in March that Bunch should receive a new trial, finding the evidence used to convict her was outdated, weak and wrongly withheld from the defense. It said prosecutors should have provided her defense with a lab report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that allegedly found no trace of kerosene in her son's bedroom, as prosecutors alleged.

The appeals court last week ordered the Decatur County court to either reinstate Bunch's original $5,000 bail or hold a new hearing.

Bail is rarely granted in murder cases in Indiana. Prosecutor Jim Rosenberry, who was chief deputy prosecutor at the time, said Bunch was granted bail in 1996 because prosecutors weren't able to proceed to trial within Indiana's 180-day limit.

Bunch's attorney, Safer, had said he didn't expect the court to set the Greensburg woman's bail any higher now than it did 16 years ago.

"Bond is set to make sure that someone doesn't recidivate and that they appear," he said. "The $5,000 bond worked. Why would it be higher?"

Rosenberry said he will seek a gag order to restrict attorneys' public comments regarding the case as it proceeds to a new trial. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for Aug. 30, he said.

Safer said he will oppose the gag order.

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 fire.

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.

Safer said Bunch has earned a GED and a paralegal degree while she was in prison and hopes to attend law school if released.