Wednesday, January 16, 2008

'I never should have been in jail'

January 15, 2008


An Indianapolis man wrongly imprisoned 11 years for a rape he didn't commit was cleared but languished in prison for two more years because of a paperwork mistake.

Harold Buntin, 38, walked out of prison Friday after a judge and commissioner corrected the 2005 mistake and cleared the Indianapolis man of robbing and raping a woman in 1984.

The Marion County prosecutor agreed to drop all charges against Buntin and, based on the DNA test results, did not oppose his release, said Matthew Symons, spokesman for the prosecutor.

Elated to finally be free, Buntin said he remains upset and frustrated that misplaced paperwork delayed his release for so long.

"I'm going to move on and take care of my business," he said Monday. "But I feel like somebody has to answer for that. I never should have been in jail -- and I spent two more years there after they knew I was innocent."

At the time Buntin was convicted, DNA testing was not widely used. Prosecutors linked him to the victim because of her testimony and the fact that he had the same blood type as the rapist.

Buntin is among about 200 convicts in the United States -- at least five in Indiana -- who have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, according to The Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit organization that works to free innocent people through use of DNA evidence.

Winning his exoneration was a long and trying process for his mother and two sisters, who had to raise more than $4,000 to pay for two DNA analyses. The tests revealed he was not the person who robbed and raped the 22-year-old clerk at a Northside cleaners Aug. 4, 1984.

Repeated requests for a review of his case based on the test results finally paid off in April 2005, when a judge exonerated him. But Buntin -- and the rest of the justice system -- wouldn't find out about the decision for two more years.

A bailiff or clerk failed to properly enter and distribute the order clearing Buntin, court officials found, leaving him stuck in prison.

Because no order was sent to him or his attorney, Buntin believed the court had not ruled on his petition. At first he waited, but records show he filed follow-up documents with the court in August and November 2005.

The problem was discovered after Buntin and family members pressed his attorney to file a "lazy judge" complaint because of the delay in the ruling. Court officials began an investigation and found the original order in Buntin's court file, which had been placed in storage.

"Whether the bailiff failed to follow the provided directions or whether the deputy clerk assigned to this court failed to discharge her responsibilities, the order was never entered of record and copies were never distributed to the interested parties," Judge Grant W. Hawkins and Master Commissioner Nancy L. Broyles wrote in a notice explaining the delayed ruling.

"Rather, the file was closed and archived as if the court's order had been properly entered into the record."

The rape allegation has haunted Buntin since he was 15 and identified by the victim. Police believed the woman, who previously identified another suspect, and Buntin was charged with rape and armed robbery. The woman could not be reached for comment Monday.

Buntin's case went to trial in April 1986. He was 17 and scared, and before the trial ended, he fled the state.

A jury convicted him in absentia on charges of armed robbery and rape and sentenced Buntin to 50 years in prison.

After an unrelated arrest in Florida in 1994, police discovered Buntin was a fugitive and sent him back to Indiana, where he began serving his sentence.

While he waited to be freed, Buntin said, he did not waste his time in prison. First, he earned a general educational development certificate and then associate degrees in computer business and culinary arts. Now that he's out, Buntin said, he's not sure what the future holds for him.

"I still haven't gotten used to it yet," said Buntin, who declined to be photographed. "It's going to take awhile to re-adjust and reconnect with my family. That was a long time, and right now I'm just trying to take life a day at a time and enjoy every moment."

For his family, the release has brought mixed emotions.

"Friday was a beautiful day -- sad and happy at the same time," said Buntin's sister, Kim Buntin, Indianapolis. "I'm happy he's finally home, but I'm mad he had to go through all of this to prove his innocence."

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