Imagine walking out of prison with a borrowed outfit, a grocery sack of your belongings and not even a toothbrush to restart your life.
Maybe you’ve missed decades of your children’s lives, your parents have died, friends have moved on and there’s no place to turn. You don’t know how to turn on a computer, you can’t figure out how the bathroom faucets turn on without knobs and you need to get your learner’s permit to begin the process of getting a driver’s license.
These are stories Kristine Bunch has experienced or heard from fellow exonorees over the past several years.
In 1995, Bunch was wrongfully convicted of arson and murder when her house burnt down and her 3-year-old son died in the fire. She was pregnant at the time of her conviction and gave birth to a son in prison.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions eventually took her case and she was exonerated 17 years into a 60-year sentence.
“You go into an often very dangerous environment with a label on you like murderer and baby killer and you know you didn’t do it, but everyone expects you to say that," Bunch said. "You’re frightened most of the time, and you try to figure out what your next step is. I had never been in trouble with the law, so I wasn’t sure who to reach out to.
“You’re strip searched by anyone that tells you to take your clothes off, you buy commissary and they come in and throw it all on the floor because they have to do an inspection. The mental torture is one of the biggest things, but all the while, everything is changing outside.”
Of the nearly 2,400 exonorees in the country, Indiana is home to 35 and beginning to look at a bill that compensates the wrongfully convicted.
Based off of a proposal authored by State Rep. Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon) that House members unanimously supported this week, innocent Hoosiers could soon have the option of receiving $50,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisononed, as opposed to suing the state — but they can’t do both.
The bill is meant to provide an alternative to those who are innocent and do not want to pursue a lengthy lawsuit.
“In Indiana, those who are innocent and wrongfully convicted can choose to sue, which could be a drawn-out process,” Steuerwald said. “For those who have already lost years of their lives behind bars, this option may not be feasible.”
He said money provided to Hoosiers who have been wrongfully convicted would come from an exoneration fund established through this policy, which would be administered by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.
Steuerwald said they would also be eligible for post-prison wraparound services that are currently only offered to those who serve their time and are released.
“When I walked out, I had nothing," Bunch said. "You don’t know what you're supposed to do in that moment. Two days later I had to go back to the prison to get my ID so I could get a learner's permit and start all over again. I called and asked about re-entry services and was told ‘we can’t help you'. Because I’m not on parole or probation, those services aren’t available to me.”
Steuerwald said, “In addition to monetary compensation, they deserve to have access to programs dedicated to helping people succeed after incarceration.”
This proposal would also provide an option for those currently in a lawsuit to dismiss their case and then apply for the monetary option.
Bunch has mixed feelings about the current proposal. While filing a lawsuit can be costly, especially for someone who has no resources, she feels that the people who put the exonoree behind bars should also be held accountable. Putting a fund together to help financially doesn’t solve the entire problem, she said.
“The headlines flash when people win millions, but the truth is less than 1 percent of exonorees win the lawsuit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations," Bunch said. "What you don’t see are all the people who are homeless, the ones released in their 60s and 70s and they have no social security; no retirement funds.
“I can’t put into words how grateful I am that Rep. Steuerwald has taken up this cause. He’s started the conversation and brought awareness to the issue, but in my mind, every single person should be eligible for it. Every person went through pure torture for something they didn’t do and when they are released, they should have something in place as far as housing, transportation, a way to get on their feet.”
Bunch is referring to the two-year time limit exonorees have to file a lawsuit after release. Most are suing not just for financial reasons because they’re told it’s a long shot, but also to hold the people accountable who made the errors in order to stop it from happening to others.
The proposed legislation calls for those who have filed a suit and reached a verdit to no longer be eligible for the $50,000 per year and those who have a pending suit have the option of dropping the suit or turning down the financial offer.
“There’s no making up for it, you can’t undo it,” Bunch said. “To have a bill that is so needed is great, but it should help everybody. Suing at the time was your only option. If you are one that never filed suit, you still can’t go back now and get the compensation.
“In my opinion, we need to say when a judge says a person is vacated, that person is immediately put in contact with a re-entry person for housing, clothing, insurance, educational opportunities, job training, medical, dental, mental health treatment and then they’re able to succeed. They’ve had time to adjust and then if you want to throw money at them, give it to them. Put part of it in an annuity for retirement. Step up and help people rebuild their lives. The way the bill is now, the exonoree actually has to pay for whatever court proceedings need to happen to get to the fund. If I came out without a toothbrush, how do I have the money to access this?”
Bunch started a non-profit for exonorees called Justis 4 Justus.
“It’s a lot of networking," she explained. "We don’t give money but we have clothes and connections; gift cards. Whatever is needed at that moment, I reach out to the network and find out what we can do for this person. We’ve worked on everything from cell phones to gas cards, rent, heat and electric bills. We even have a couple volunteers that walk people through creating resumes and applying for college.”
She estimates out of the current 35 exonorees in the state, four would receive help from the current bill and how it’s written.
“We’re not helping enough; we’re not doing enough," Bunch said. "These people have no one vouching for them. They don’t have a credit history, renter’s history, a credit score. There’s very little they can do without help. Some have never even had a checking account.
“Rep Steuerwald is the only person that has taken up this torch and he’s tried to do it for several years now. He’s doing what he thinks is right and best. He’s our only champion and I want him to have kudos for that. But in my case, I had someone falsify a document. I want people to know that this happens and this person shouldn’t be working in this area. Saying you can’t have a civil suit in addition to receiving help ... it’s like they’ve gotten away with it.”
After the unanimous vote in support of House Bill 1150, Steuerwald’s proposal now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Bunch now travels across the country raising awareness about her ordeal and the many others working to put their lives back together. She recently testified at the Indiana Statehouse, telling her story to lawmakers in hopes of putting assistance in place for exonorees.