College students learn from the wrongfully accused at Justice Denied event

Published: Nov. 8, 2023 at 6:06 PM CST
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PEORIA (25News Now) -In 2022, there were 228 exonerations nationally, Illinois being the leading state on this list for the fifth year in a row with 126 dismissals, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Heartland Community College hosted a Justice Denied event Wednesday to bring attention to wrongful convictions.

The college invited two exonerees, Kristine Bunch, who served 17 years in prison and Patrick Pursley, who served 25 years of incarceration.

Kristine Bunch was convicted in 1995 when she lost her home and son to a house fire. Bunch was charged with arson and murder, receiving a 60-year sentence. She served 17 years before being exonerated.

“I was just numb with grief and pain like you wouldn’t believe,” said Bunch.

She hopes stories like hers can inspire students to one day eliminate our justice system’s flaws.

“The intention is always to make sure that no one else goes through what I’ve gone through, or any of my brothers or sisters. We have the opportunity to fix it and make it better, and it’s up to every one of us to fix it and make it better,” said Bunch.

Cristina Prestin-Beard, from Heartland Community College criminal justice department, worked with her students to organize the event.

“Both of the exonerees were convicted in the early 90s, and that was a time of very different science than we have now and less technology. So, as we’re training people to go out into the field, students coming through the college now, we’re able to give them better tools for their future,” said Prestin-Beard.

Prestin-Beard said wrongful convictions can stem from false accusations, eyewitness misidentifications, poor defense, forensic problems and false confessions.

“If we talk to them first about this is what’s happening, and this is what we can bring about change, this is how we can open up the dialogue and start working on fixing these issues. Then future generations may not ever have to deal with wrongful convictions,” said Bunch.