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Indiana has paid out $1 million in restitution to eight wrongfully incarcerated people

Nearly three dozen have applied to a restitution program worth up to $50,000 per year behind bars

By Leslie Bonilla Muñiz, Indiana Capital Chronicle

Harold Buntin spent 13 years in prison for a rape and robbery he didn’t commit. In February — 37 years after his false conviction — the state of Indiana agreed to pay him more than half a million dollars in restitution for his trouble.

Buntin is one of 10 people to whom the state owes $3 million for collective decades spent wrongfully behind bars, under a relatively new program.

Greg Steuerwald, a Republican from Avon, authored the legislation establishing the program in 2019.

In the four years since, 33 people have applied for restitution, which is worth up to $50,000 per year of undue incarceration. The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute administers the program.

Of those applicants, the institute’s decision-making board of trustees has approved 10 and denied 15, as of August 1, according to data obtained by the Capital Chronicle. The group is still working on another eight.

“I think it is extremely insightful on the part of Indiana to recognize these things happen,” Indiana Public Defender Council Executive Director Bernice Corley — a board member — told the Capital Chronicle. “People are wrongfully convicted. What is just a way to address that?”

Win-win?

Prior to the restitution program, the exonerated had little means for recourse besides legal action. So they’d sue.

But the lengthy, difficult process comes with risks: getting nothing. The state of Indiana, conversely, faces the chance that an exoneree will win a massive, budget-busting payout.

Restitution, Corley said, is “kind of a middle-of-the-road compromise for everyone involved.”

“The government is protected in that it’s not paying as much money as if (it) were found at fault in a civil litigation,” Corley added. “For the applicant, it’s money that comes to them quicker. It’s much shorter process.”

To apply, people must have served time in Indiana for a conviction that was vacated, reversed or set aside — and be “actually innocent.” They must apply within two years of that decision.

And to get paid, they must drop any related lawsuits against state or local government entities or employees.

Careful process

Although innocence projects have advocated on behalf of numerous exonerees in Indiana and across the country, the state has no centralized means of identifying those who mistakenly served time.

“I have no idea how people know,” Corley said of the restitution program.

But those who do know, and have applied, have kept the institute and its board busy.

Staff must verify the facts of each case and find supporting documentation. That’s a difficult task for cases spanning years, successive appeals and other legal complexities.

The institute passes applications on to a subcommittee — on which Corley also serves — which makes advisory recommendations. The board has the final say.

“Some cases are very cut and dry. And we’re able to dispense with them rather quickly,” Corley said.

Applicants might not have served any time on convictions; time spent in pretrial detention, home detention, or work release doesn’t count. Or, the convictions may have been overturned on procedural grounds rather than a finding of innocence.

But other cases are more challenging.

In August 2022, the board spent nearly an hour debating the cases of Roger and Jacqueline Latta, according to audio obtained by the Capital Chronicle.

The pair escaped a house fire in 1989, but their two-year-old son didn’t — and they were convicted for his murder a year later. Investigators at the time used now-discredited “fire science” to conclude the fire was intentionally set. In a 10-hour interrogation, Jacqueline Latta confessed.

Over the next decade, the Lattas appealed their convictions and contested their legal representation, bringing in additional supporting evidence. They were released in 2001 on bail, before the convictions were vacated and the charges dismissed.

But their cases prompted disagreement among the 18-member board, which is made up of judges, prosecutors, defenders, law enforcement, two non-voting lawmakers and more.

“That’s the classic false confession scenario,” one person said, after hearing excerpts of the police officer’s notes recounting his interrogation of Jacqueline Latta. “… I just don’t put weight on that.”

“I’m hung up on the subjective interpretation of what was said more than 30-some years ago,” said another.

Life-changing — but only for some

In split votes, the board agreed to approve the Lattas’ applications. They’re owed more than $550,000 each for the decade they both spent behind bars, and have each gotten about $110,000 of it, according to institute records. Awards are always disbursed across five years.

The state’s highest single award amount tops $820,000.

Kristine Bunch’s trailer home went up in flames in the summer 1995, and while she survived, her three-year-old son was killed. She spent 17 years incarcerated for the convictions of arson and murder — but spent much of that time fighting to clear her name. She walked free in 2012.

But she also walked out without identification or any way to explain the cavern on her resume, Bunch told lawmakers considering the initial legislation at a hearing in late January 2019.

“Most of us (exonerees) are working two and three jobs without benefits just to try to rebuild our lives,” Bunch said at the time. “So a compensation bill would be life-changing for those Hoosiers.”

Bunch has already received $492,000 of her restitution, according to institute records.

Some have gotten no money — and may never get any.

Richard Alexander served five years for a series of four sexual assaults in 1996 that he didn’t commit. DNA testing exonerated him in 2001, and in 2021, Indiana awarded him nearly $190,000 in restitution.

But as his application was winding its way through the institute’s process, so was a new court case: Alexander was accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2020. Alexander pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2022 and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Indiana Code bars payments to applicants who are currently incarcerated for unrelated cases. That originally applied only to those serving out a term for a conviction, but lawmakers referenced Alexander’s case in 2022 when they extended it to include pre-trial detention.

A person can still collect after they serve their latest sentence. But at 56 years old, Alexander’s unlikely to see his restitution.

Lawmakers at the time hesitated to pay such enormous sums of money to someone incarcerated, several newspapers reported. Author Steuerwald said he wanted to “protect the integrity” of the effort.

Corley, meanwhile, said she believed the two legal matters were “separate,” and suggested the state allow payments to family members or other loved ones in such cases.

“That is an operation of the statute that I think is unfair,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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