It was June 30, 1995, and her 3-year-old son, Tony, had died in a home trailer fire hours earlier. Bunch tried to save him, but when she couldn’t fight the flames, she ran outside and attempted to thrust his tricycle through his bedroom window.
It was too late.
At the hospital, law enforcement officers had already started to conclude that the fire had been intentionally set. Bunch, bewildered, didn’t realize she was a suspect. She cried and struggled through their questions. She could still smell the smoke. Later, she coughed up black phlegm.
But investigators weren’t done with Bunch that day. They wanted to see her again. At 10 p.m., Bunch walked into the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office barefoot. All her shoes, gone in the fire.
“Did you set it?” the investigator asked.
“Then who did?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What am I going to do, make wild stabs at people that just don’t like me?”
Days later, Bunch agreed to take a polygraph test, assured the goal was to eliminate her as a suspect. Strapped to a chair and facing a wall, she felt like the test administrator kept sneaking up on her. After the test concluded, Bunch says, the polygraph operator told her he knew she killed her son.
In 1996, Bunch was convicted for Tony’s death, and she entered prison pregnant with another son. It took nearly 17 years before she walked free again, her conviction overturned in 2012.
What finally proved her innocence? Lawyers from the Center of Wrongful Convictions discovered evidence from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms showing that negative test sample results had been changed to positive results for accelerants. Experts also reevaluated the fire evidence, which has been scientifically refuted since her trial.
They found that an accidental fire had claimed Tony’s life. There had been no crime at all. This is common among female exonerations. About two-thirds of exonerated women were wrongly convicted for incidents that never occurred, compared to about a fourth of men who were exonerated.
A new analysis from the Women’s Project at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, based on data from the National Registry of Exonerations, shows that such false or misleading forensic evidence has played a role in more than a third of exonerated women’s cases. Many of these cases are also based on situational prosecutions where a female caregiver was blamed for someone’s injury or death.
About 43% of women exonerees have been convicted of harming or killing a child or loved one in their care. DNA evidence rarely proves their innocence, as it has in more than 25% of men’s exonerations. Rather, DNA evidence has played a role in only 7% of women’s exonerations.
But it was Bunch’s initial interrogation that set in motion her wrongful conviction. The classic manual “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions,” widely used by police, features the highly criticized “Reid Technique,” a nine-step interrogation guide designed to garner a confession. Bunch never gave one, but the manual provides other damaging, gendered instructions, stating: In a “final, yet insincere effort to gain sympathy,” women sometimes engage in manipulative crying as a ploy.
At trial, Bunch’s lawyer told her not to cry or show any emotion. Instead, she appeared stoic, yet she was still accused of being manipulative.
“I understand you have arranged to have yourself impregnated during the period of time that you were out of jail and prior to the trial,” Judge John Westhafer, said, laying down a 60-year sentence. “I can think of no other reason for that to have happened than that you thought it would work to your advantage somehow in this process. It will not.”
He added that he would see to it that the child became a ward of the state and was put up for adoption. “You will not raise that child,” Westhafer reprimanded. “You’ll have nothing to do with that child.”
The judge was wrong.
From prison, Bunch mothered as much as she could. Together, she and her son read the Harry Potter books, discussing them through letters. Earning at most $1.25 a day, she saved up for the things he wanted.
Yet, to some extent, the judge was right. She missed a lot—his first steps, his first words, his first day at school.
“I think the biggest loss are what I could have had with both of my sons,” Bunch says. “I didn’t get to go to Tony’s grave and put flowers on there, and I didn’t get to spend time with him on his birthday.”
In a case without any crime at all, it turns out the real crime was against Bunch. She was robbed of time to grieve.
The night after the fire, Bunch stayed at Tony’s babysitter’s house. There she found some of his toys and clothes strewn about from the previous day.
Bunch gathered the objects and curled up in bed, clutching the remnants.
Adapted from Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity, copyright © 2016 by Alison Flowers. First hardcover edition published June 7, 2016, by Haymarket Books. All rights reserved.