Julie Rea

The tragedy of her son's murder was compounded by her wrongful conviction

Before daybreak on October 13, 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was murdered in the Lawrenceville, Illinois, home of his mother, Julie Rea, a PhD student at Indiana University. Julie gave a consistent and detailed description of the intruder who broke into her home, killed her son, and tried to kill her, yet the investigation focused solely on Rea.

She was indicted three years later. During her trial, prosecutors presented several pieces of gender-biased emotional, prejudicial, and irrelevant evidence, including testimony by her ex-husband that she had contemplated aborting her pregnancy with Joel. (The testimony not only was prejudicial, it also was false. Julie's obstetrician testified that she had confined herself to bed around the clock during the final weeks of the pregnancy to reduce the risk of a spontaneous abortion.)

Despite the lack of physical evidence or motive, the jury found Rea guilty and she was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

In 2004, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who had committed similar crimes in Missouri and Texas, confessed that he had broken into what he presumed to be Julie's home, taken a knife from a butcher block in the kitchen, stabbed a little boy to death, and scuffled with a woman. Those details were strikingly similar to Rea's account of the crime, and there was evidence that Sells had been in the area at the time of the crime.

On June 24, 2004 , the Fifth District the Illinois Appellate Court ordered a new trial not as a result of the Sells confession but rather because state law had been violated by the appointment of special prosecutors in the case. The Center on Wrongful Convictions assembled a pro bono trial team led by Ronald S. Safer, managing partner of Schiff Hardin LLP, and Jeffrey Urdangen from Northwestern Law. At Rea's retrial, the jury heard a tape of the Sells confession (which the prosecution contended was false).

In addition, the defense adduced extensive forensic evidence supporting Rea's account that an intruder had killed Joel and attacked her, including expert testimony establishing that Julie had suffered extensive injuries that could not have been self-inflicted.

The jury found the defense evidence persuasive and returned a verdict of not guilty on July 26, 2006.

Case Chronology

June 25, 1993 — Tommy Lynn Sells is sentenced to an indeterminate term of two to ten years in prison for a knife attack on a twenty-year-old woman in her home in Charleston, West Virginia.

September 3, 1994 — Julie Rea Kirkpatrick is divorced from her husband, Leonard Kirkpatrick.

March 7, 1996 — Leonard Kirkpatrick is awarded residential custody of their nine-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick.

May 1997 — Tommy Lynn Sells is released from prison in Moundsville, West Virginia.

October 13, 1997 — Ten-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick is stabbed to death in his mother's home in Lawrenceville, Illinois.

December 31, 1999 — Thirteen-year-old Kaylene Harris is stabbed to death and a companion, eleven-year-old Krystal Surles, is wounded by a knife-wielding man in Del Rio, Texas.

January 2, 2000 — Sells makes a tape-recorded confession to the Del Rio crime and approximately fifty others, although not the Kirkpatrick crime, to a Val Verde County, Texas, Sheriff's Lieutenant Larry Pope and Texas Ranger John Allen.

September 2000 — Sells is sentenced to death for the Del Rio crime.

October 12, 2000 — A Lawrence County grand jury indicts Julie Rea for her son's murder and she is taken into custody in Monroe County, Indiana.

December 15, 2000 — Rea, an Indiana University Ph.D. candidate in psychology, waives extradition to Illinois in exchange for an agreement under which she is to be released on $500,000 bond.

September 12, 2001 — Rea wins a change of venue to Wayne County, Illinois. The state agrees to provide $2,500 to hire a defense investigator.

February 21, 2002 — The Rea trial opens in Wayne County before Lawrence County Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Hopkins and a jury of six men and six women.

March 4, 2002 — Even though there is no direct evidence of Rea's guilt, the jury finds her guilty. Her bond is revoked and she is taken into custody.

March 19, 2002 — Judge Hopkins sentences Rea to sixty-five years in prison.

June 22, 2002 — In a letter to Diane Fanning, a writer researching a true crime book, Sells writes that he committed the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick.

July 23, 2002 — Fanning visits Sells in jail in Texas where he was being held and he describes the Kirkpatrick murder in some detail.

February 28, 2003 — Allen Wolf and Robert Bunting, private attorneys from Michigan, file a direct appeal for Rea in the Fifth District Illinois Appellate Court.

Summer 2003 — The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project begins an investigation with the goal of filing a clemency petition for Rea and the Center on Wrongful Convictions agrees to represent Rea.

September 23, 2003 — Bill Clutter and Larry Golden, of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, announce at a Springfield press conference that they have “compelling new evidence corroborating [Sell's] confession.”

October 23, 2003 — Author Diane Fanning holds a Springfield press conference describing Sells's confession to the Kirkpatrick crime.

November 6, 2003 — Sells confesses once more to the Kirkpatrick murder, this time to Illinois law enforcement officials.

June 24, 2004 — The Fifth District Appellate Court vacates Rea's conviction and remands her case for a new trial based on procedural error.

Early July 2004 — Ronald S. Safer, a partner in the Chicago law firm of Schiff Hardin LLP, enters the case, partnering with the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

July 22, 2004 — Rea is released on $750,000 bond pending retrial.

September 9, 2005 — The Lawrence County Circuit Court agrees that Rea is entitled to a change of venue but does not name a location.

October 4, 2005 — Clinton County is selected as the venue for the new trial and Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Barry L. Vaughan is selected to preside.

March 10, 2005 — Over the objection of prosecutors, Judge Vaughan rules that Sells's statements are admissible at the Rea retrial.

July 11, 2006 — Jury selection begins.

July 26, 2006 — The jury finds Julie Rea not guilty.

Case Data

Crime date: October 13, 1997
Jurisdiction: Lawrence County, Illinois - tried on changes of venue to Wayne County (first trial) and to Clinton County (second trial).
Crime: Murder
Related crime(s): none
Age: 28 (born December 13, 1968)
Gender: Female
Race or ethnicity: Caucasian
Occupation: Indiana University graduate student pursuing PhD in educational psychology
Prior record: None
Arrest date: October 12, 2000
Victim: Joel Kirkpatrick
Victim's gender: Male
Victim's race: Caucasian
Victim's age: 10
Victim's occupation: Student
Relationship of defendant to victim: Mother-child
How defendant became a suspect: She was present when crime occurred in her home between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m.
Principal evidence of defendant's guilt: Nothing other than her presence at the crime scene. Prosecutors argued simply that it did not make sense that someone would enter a home and kill a child with a knife found in the home - especially without leaving fingerprints on the knife or other physical evidence.
Principal defense: An unknown intruder committed the murder and in the process wounded the mother. Evidence that Julie Rea was a loving mother also was presented.
Type of trial: Jury
Conviction date: May 10, 2002
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: Sixty-five years
Appellate record: Original indictment and conviction vacated by non-published opinion by Fifth District Illinois Appellate Court.
Basis for exoneration: The physical evidence was inconsistent with the prosecution theory that Julie Rea committed the crime. Evidence was also presented that the crime might have been committed by serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells.
Legal form of exoneration: Acquittal upon retrial
Release date: July 22, 2004
Exoneration date: July 26, 2006
Days of incarceration: 1,379
Prior felony record: None
Post-exoneration felony record: None
Compensation: Pending

— Rob Warden and Ayse Tuker