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 the appointment of special prosecutors for the first trial violated statea law. 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 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. On December 1, 2010, the Circuit Court of Lawrence County awarded her a certificate of innocence.