Join Everyday Law and Judy Royal of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, as we discuss with exonerees, Juan Rivera and Kristine Bunch, their journey from imprisonment to release, and how they are now starting a foundation for exonerees to help them back on their feet: “Just Is 4 Just Us.”
The CWC (Center on Wrongful Convictions) is part of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Northwestern Law School. Judy Royal is a staff attorney with the CWC. The CWC investigates wrongful convictions, represents individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and educates the public about wrongful convictions. Law students, clinic attorneys as well as pro bono attorneys work together on cases for the CWC. The CWC receives thousands of requests each year from across the country asking for the CWC’s help. Due to limited resources, the CWC can only take a fraction of the cases it receives.
Juan Rivera and Kristine Bunch are 2 exonerees who were successfully assisted by the CWC. Rivera was convicted of rape and murder in Lake County, Illinois, while Bunch was convicted of arson and the murder of her son in Indiana. In 1991, Rivera watched a TV show about disputing DNA evidence in a criminal case. This led him to start contacting the CWC. Initially, the CWC turned down Rivera’s case twice, but ultimately accepted his case once the legal world had caught up with the scientific world and DNA testing. Bunch met an acquaintance while in prison who contacted the CWC repeatedly on her behalf to look into her case. Though Bunch had a local attorney, her case required arson experts which can be quite costly.
The CWC and the Better Government Association conducted a study about the impact of wrongful convictions. Between 1989 and 2010, wrongful convictions of violent crimes in Illinois cost taxpayers over $300 million dollars and wrongfully incarcerated 85 people for a total of 926 years. Additionally, there remains the issue of unsolved crimes and perpetrators still at large for those particular crimes. Another study cites that to date in the United States, there have been 2,000 exonerations culminating in 18,000 years served by the wrongfully convicted.
The release of exonerees from prison, while a huge victory, leads to a very difficult readjustment period. Exonerees, unlike paroled convicts, are not prepared for their release in any way nor do they receive any support as would a parolee. Rivera was imprisoned as a very young man and released at age 39. He was overwhelmed by the changes in the world. Fortunately, some attorneys from the CWC assisted Rivera upon his release. Bunch was released from prison in her prison uniform; however, she had a brother who stuck with her and supported her upon release.
Because of the difficulties both had in readjusting to the changing world upon their release, Rivera and Bunch have founded an organization called “Just Is 4 Just Us”. Their mission is to offer community support to exonerees and raise awareness and educate the public about the unique challenges that exonerees face upon release. Rather than monetary donations, the organization is seeking assistance such as gift cards for clothes or a haircut, free medical or dental visits, a volunteer willing to teach basic computer skills or accompany an exoneree to an appointment. Additionally, exonerees greatly benefit from counseling as they make the adjustment from prison to free society. Moreover, new exonerees can weather this adjustment more easily when they have a mentor who understands what they are experiencing. Rivera and Bunch can be reached through their website, www.justis4justus.org.