On October 13, 1997, Julie Rea's 10-year old son, Joel, was brutally stabbed to death in the middle of the night by an intruder. The crime shocked the small town of Lawrenceville, Illinois. She was a Ph. D. student at Indiana University. For three years, the case remained unsolved.
Though there was no motive or evidence that she had killed her only child, Julie was indicted by a special prosecutor who was appointed after the elected State's Attorney declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence. Bill Clutter advised her attorney to investigate Sells: In June of 2000, Julie's privately retained attorney was referred to private investigator Bill Clutter. Clutter was informed that that the attorney's client was facing indictment on capital murder charges. Hearing Julie's description of the assailant, and the details of the crime, Clutter suggested investigating whether Tommy Lynn Sells committed the murder. The description of the intruder; and the modis operandi, said Clutter, fit the description of a confessed child serial killer, Tommy Lynn Sells. On New Years Eve of 1999, Sells broke into the home of a Del Rio, Texas family at 4:30 a.m. and brutally stabbed to death 13 year-old Kaylene Harris while the rest of the family slept through the attack. Another child, 10 year-old Krystal Surles had her throat slashed, but survived the attack and provided police a description of the assailant, leading to the arrest of Sells, who received the death penalty and who's death sentence was carried out at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on April 3, 2014. Clutter suggested that a defense investigation should look at Sells as a possible suspect in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick.
Prosecutors prevent access to reforms designed to protect innocent people from execution: On Oct. 12, 2000, Julie was charged with capital murder. Having exhausted her life savings on private counsel, Julie filed a pro se petition requesting the appointment of two capital qualified attorneys to defend her, seeking the protection of Supreme Court reforms that were to take effect in March of 2001, requiring the appointment of two qualified attorneys to defend a person facing the death penalty.
Prosecutors prevented Julie from receiving the benefit of those reforms, by announcing they no longer intended to seek the death penalty. Those reforms including access to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which funds the appointment of investigators, lawyers, and experts were put in place in January of 2000, after Anthony Porter, 48 hours away from execution was exonerated by a private investigator Paul Ciolino, working with a Northwestern University journalism professor, Dave Protess.
The prosecutor's decision to back away from seeking the death penalty deprived Julie of the reforms that were designed to guard against an innocent person being wrongly convicted.
Prosecutors used emotionally charged evidence in their zeal to convict: Prosecutors improperly elicited testimony from Julie's ex-husband that she once considering having an abortion when she became pregnant with Joel. Julie, raised in a deeply religious family, adamantly denied this. The case, tried in Wayne County, Illinois, in deep Southern Illinois,
was in a conservative rural county where abortion is fiercely opposed by an overwhelming majority. The prejudicial impact of this emotionally charged testimony becomes even clearer when one looks at the 2004 election for the US Senate between Barack Obama, and Alan Keys, two black candidates who had distinctly opposing positions on the abortion issue. Keys based his campaign entirely on his pro-life views on abortion. Though Obama won 70% of the vote statewide in an overwhelming landslide, Keys commanded 72% of the popular vote in Wayne County where
the case was tried.
Defended by a lone, public defender and outmatched by three opposing prosecutors, Julie was convicted on March 4, 2002, and sentenced to serve 65 years in prison.
On May 31, 2002, just weeks after Julie was sentenced, ABC 20/20 aired her story. Diane Fanning, a true crime author on serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, watched the program. She corresponded with Sells. Without providing him when this crime occurred, Sells wrote back and asked her if this murder happened two days before his Springfield, MO murder. On Oct. 15, two days after Joel's murder, Sells abducted and killed 13 year-old Stephanie Mahaney. He was indicted for that murder by a grand jury after he gave details that only the killer would know.
Investigation by Bill Clutter, Director of Investigations at the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project (now the Illinois Innocence Project) at the University of Illinois at Springfield resulted in eyewitness testimony from Alan Berkshire who saw Sells in Lawrenceville the weekend Joel was killed; and the testimony of Sandra Wirth, who reported selling a bus ticket to Winnemucca, Nevada, two days after Joel as killed to a man who matched the suspect Julie described to police. Winnemucca is significant because Texas Rangers can place Sells there after Joel was killed. Texas Ranger John Allen reviewed the evidence gathered by UIS. This evidence convinced Ranger Allen that Sells' confession to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick is genuine.
UIS presents exonerating evidence to the Prisoner Review Board:On Oct. 24, 2003, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project presented compelling evidence corroborating the confession of Tommy Lynn Sells. Diane Fanning testified as to the circumstances of how Sells confessed to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick. Former state police crime scene investigator Alva Busch pointed out inaccuracies in the interpretation of crime scene evidence of one of the State's experts at the first trial that contributed to Julie's wrongful conviction. Bill Clutter, presented a summary of the evidence corroborating Sell's confession.
At the urging of the Prisoner Review Board, prosecutor David Rands and Sgt. Pea of the Illinois State Police traveled to Texas on Nov. 6, 2003, and conducted an audio recorded interview of Sells. Sells gave details that only the killer would know. Sells told prosecutors that during the struggle the woman clung to his leg as he drug her inside the house. Six
years earlier, Julie had described this event, grabbing the intruder's leg and being dragged on the carpet. A nurse who treated Julie observed what appeared to be rug burns on her leg.
Despite 53 points of corroboration to Sell's confession to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick, prosecutors continued to insist they disbelieved the confession based on the few facts Sells got wrong, taking the same position prosecutors in DuPage County took in the Nicarico case when they were presented the confession of serial killer Brian Dugan in 1985. UIS discovers evidence of police perjury: The media coverage of the Prisoner Review Board hearing prompted the former mayor of Lawrenceville and the former chief of police to contact the Downstate Innocence Project with evidence suggesting that a Lawrence County Sheriff deputy testified falsely at the first trial regarding his search of the back yard looking for footprints in the dew covered grass in the back yard. Whether reports indicate that there was no dew on the ground. On the morning of the crime, the former Lawrenceville police chief conducted an audio interview of the deputy who discovered Joel's body. The deputy described going into the house upon discovering broken glass and blood at the back door. At trial, however, the deputy testified before going inside the house "I shined the yard with my light. It was heavy dew. I seen no fresh track in the yard." The deputy did not document this activity in his report. Yet, his testimony was used by prosecutors as evidence that there was no intruder.This audio tape was never provided to the defense during Julie's first trial.
Appellate court vacates conviction.On June 24, 2004, the appellate court vacated Julie's conviction and ordered her immediate release. As she was set to take her first step out of prison, prosecutors re-arrested Julie, ignoring overwhelming evidence that she is innocent. Supporters quickly rallied and raised $75,000 in less than a week's time to secure her release on bond. Instead of seeking justice, as new Supreme Court rules require, prosecutors sought to convict her again.
Jury acquits Julie: On July 26, 2006, a jury in Carlyle found Julie not guilty of killing her son. She was represented by the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Law School. Lead attorney, Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor and partner at the Chicago law firm of Schiff, Hardin, donated his time to Julie's legal defense. He was assisted by Jeff Urdangen, a staff attorney at Northwestern. Other staff attorneys Karen Daniel, Judith Royal and law students at Northwestern University assisted the defense team.