In the pre-dawn morning of October 13, 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was murdered in the home of his mother, Julie Rea, in the rural town of Lawrenceville, Illinois. The boy was stabbed twelve times as he slept in his bed. Rea, who had visitation of Joel that weekend, testified that she was awakened by screams and rushed into her son’s room, where she was confronted by an intruder. She fought with the intruder through the house and out into the yard, before the intruder fled on foot.
On October 12, 2000, a Lawrence County grand jury indicted Julie Rea for the murder of her son and she was taken into custody in Monroe County, Indiana, where she was attending Indiana University in a PhD program. On December 15, 2000, Rea waived extradition to Illinois in exchange for an agreement under which she was to be released on $500,000 bond. Also, Rea won a change of venue to Wayne County, Illinois.
The jury trial began on February 21, 2002, in Wayne County before Lawrence County Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Hopkins. The prosecution’s principal evidence against Rea was that she was in the house when the crime happened. Furthermore, they hinted that the motive may have been the bitter custody fight for the boy, who was in physical custody of his father, with Rea getting weekend visitation. They also claimed that there were no fingerprints on the alleged murder weapon — which later proved not to be the actual weapon. On March 4, 2002, the jury found Julie Rea guilty and the judge sentenced her to 65 years in prison.
In 2004, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who committed similar crimes in Missouri and Texas, confessed that he had broken into what he presumed to be Rea’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 the Downstate Innocence Project developed evidence that Sells had been in the area at the time of the crime. After the Sells’s confession the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Rea’s conviction and remanded the case for retrial, holding only that state law had been violated by the appointment of special prosecutors in the case.
Rea was released on bond, and the Center on Wrongful Convictions assembled a pro bono team led by Ronald S. Safer, managing partner of Schiff Hardin LLP, to represent her. A change of venue was granted to Clinton County, where the case was retried in 2006 with Hamilton County Circuit Judge Barry L. Vaughan presiding. The jury heard a tape of the Sells confession, which the prosecution contended was false. In addition to the confession, the defense presented extensive forensic evidence strongly indicating, as Rea had contended from the beginning, that an intruder had killed Joel and attacked her. The evidence established that Rea had suffered substantial injuries that could not have been self-inflicted. The jury found the defense evidence persuasive, and returned a verdict of not guilty.
Julie Rea was granted a Certificate of Innocence on November 29, 2010, and was awarded $87,057 from the Illinois Court of Claims.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions