The following excerpt from BUST contributor Alison Flowers's new book, Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity, out June 7, features Kristine Bunch, a woman wrongly convicted and exonerated of the murder of her 3-year-old son, who perished in a home trailer fire in Indiana. The book explores what happens to innocent people after the state sets them free and tosses them out into an unfamiliar world:
Wrongly convicted women face a unique set of challenges. Sexism lurks at every stage of the criminal justice process. The controversial “Reid Technique,” widely used by law enforcement to garner confessions from suspects, states that in a “final, yet insincere effort to gain sympathy,” women sometimes engage in manipulative crying as a ploy. For this reason, defense lawyers often instruct women not to cry at trial. As a result, the jury may conclude that the female defendant is a cold-hearted killer, incapable of emotion, another sexist trope.
Pregnant with another son at the time of trial, Kristine was accused by her trial judge of trying to manipulate the court by seeking sympathy.
Like Kristine, many women exonerees are victims of situational prosecutions where someone died or was injured, and the female caregiver was blamed. Forty-three percent of women exonerees were wrongly convicted of harming or killing a child or loved one in their care. In about two-thirds of female exonerations, no crime actually occurred. False or misleading forensic evidence has played a role in about a third of women exonerees’ cases, compared to about 20 percent of men’s cases.
The excerpt opens as a judge has released Kristine after nearly 17 years behind bars. She prepares to leave the county jail to greet her family, including her grown, teenaged son.
A plastic bag with her name on it held a purple-and-blue striped frock, dress shoes, and some tan-colored pantyhose. Kristine’s mother, Susan, had managed to get these items into the hands of a deputy inside the jail, where she was preparing to leave.
Kristine chucked the nylon pantyhose. “No way was I going to wear that. That was another prison,” she says. But she conceded and put on the “horrible, ugly dress” from her mother.
Clutching the plastic bag and some papers, she walked out into the sunshine. Another batch of reporters greeted her. After years of running file photos and old video on her case, the news crews ate up the chance to capture fresh footage of Kristine, hugging her mother and the lawyers who had helped her. Kristine smiled and pivoted to answer their questions.
“Once I’m fully cleared, I’m going to law school,” she told them, garnering claps from her supporters.
Kristine had worked in the prison law library for several years, becoming a paralegal and helping other women with their cases. She was one of the first inmates at the Indiana Women’s Prison to take the LSAT. She had done much of her own legal work in prison, sending ideas and tips to her local attorney.
“You seem so happy,” one reporter noted. “It would seem like you might be tempted to be bitter about waiting this long to get out. You don’t seem to show that. Can you explain that?”
Kristine turned to him mid-question, and her face dropped. “I think because this entire time I haven’t been by myself,” she answered. “I’ve had a family that has stood by me. I’ve had people that believed in me and stepped up. And you can’t receive blessings like that and be bitter.”
Away from the reporters, her teenaged son Trent was a little stand-offish. His striped polo shirt hung on his frame. His wavy hair was cut into the shaggy, swooped style of teen pop star Justin Bieber, and Trent was now several inches taller than Kristine, at about five foot seven. He gave her a hug but said nothing.
Maybe it’s something that happens with boys, Kristine thought. They don’t want to be hugged and kissed. Plus, she knew that he understood her legal victory could only be a temporary reprieve from the difficult life he had known. A retrial could snatch Kristine back into captivity.
Still, Trent posed with his family for a photo, arms linked, flashing a wide camera smile, frozen in time.
At a bistro in nearby Columbus, Indiana, Kristine ordered a glass of champagne, scallops (not on the menu, but made specially by the restaurant for her first night free), and some peach ice cream. As she sipped her champagne, a TV camera captured footage around the table of Kristine breaking bread with her lawyers and family.
It was a quiet, pensive ride back to her mother’s apartment, where her son had been living. This would be her home, too.
Kristine walked through the door and stopped. To her shock, the space was packed, with only small pathways of linoleum separating the junk. There was garbage strewn about. Cigarette smoke had yellowed the walls. During her years in prison, Trent had never mentioned these conditions. The disorder hung in stark contrast to the orderliness of prison, though both settings concealed a certain chaos.
“Something broke in her,” Kristine says, attributing her mother’s hoarding behavior to the pain of losing her daughter for seventeen years. She clings to what she can, Kristine reasons. “Now she can’t seem to clean or throw things away.”
Inside, everyone else went to bed. Kristine didn’t know what to do; she didn’t have a toothbrush or pajamas or a place to sleep.
She took off her dress, changed back into her beige prison uniform and cleared off a space on a recliner. Then, Kristine got back up. She went to Trent, who was conked out in his bed. She watched her son closely. He was almost a grown man. For hours, Kristine stayed awake: “I always wanted to check on my baby as he slept.”
Photos of Kristine via Center on Wrongful Convictions, Cover photo via Alison Flowers
More From BUSTExoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence and Identity” (Haymarket Books, 2016). In 2013, she produced a multimedia series about exonerees for Chicago Public Media and NPR affiliate WBEZ. The yearlong project was a finalist for a national Online Journalism Award. Her work has also appeared in TIME, The Village Voice, VICE and elsewhere. Flowers works at the Invisible Institute, a production company on the South Side of Chicago and is a fellow with the Social Justice News Nexus, an investigative journalism project supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @Flowersalison.