SPRINGFIELD -- ABC-TV will devote a portion of its March 9 edition of 20/20 to the exoneration of Julie Rea Harper, who in a July 2006 retrial was found not guilty of murdering her son. The University of Illinois at Springfield's Downstate Illinois Innocence Project was involved in Rea Harper's case and worked to develop significant evidence presented during her second trial.
In October 1997, Rea Harper's 10-year-old son, Joel, was stabbed to death in his bed at their home in Lawrenceville, Illinois. Rea Harper, a doctoral student at Indiana University, was at the time involved in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband, who blamed her for the murder. Nearly five years later, Rea Harper was arrested and put on trial, despite her claim that an intruder had killed Joel and despite the lack of direct evidence linking her to the crime. She was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison.
In May 2002, just weeks after Rea Harper was sentenced, ABC's 20/20 aired a segment on her case. Diane Fanning, a Texas author who was writing a book on serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, saw the program and corresponded with Sells, who was already on Texas' death row for another, similar killing. Sells not only admitted to Joel's murder but was able to provide Fanning with dates and information that substantiated his admission. Illinois authorities dismissed Sells' confession.
Meanwhile, Rea Harper's family and friends began a campaign to vindicate her. The UIS Innocence Project took up the case, and its investigation resulted in the corroboration of Sells' confession and the development of scientific evidence supporting Rea Harper's defense. On July 26, 2006, a jury in Carlyle, Illinois, found her not guilty.
Larry Golden, UIS professor emeritus of Political Studies and Legal Studies and a co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said, "The Rea Harper case stands as an example of the injustices of wrongful conviction. A defendant may be charged with a capital crime, but if prosecutors do not ask for the death penalty, that defendant is deprived of serious resources for lawyers, investigators, and expert testimony.
"The Innocence Project and others are working with the legislature to extend those resources to such individuals and also to provide a way for those in prison who are truly likely to be innocent to have their cases reviewed."
Bill Clutter, also a co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project and the project's director of investigations, compared the Rea Harper case to that of Rolando Cruz, who was tried three times for the killing of Jeanine Nicarico before being acquitted in 1995 after spending more than 10 years on death row. "This type of abuse, where prosecutors continue to pursue an individual without regard to other evidence, must end," said Clutter. "We saw this kind of misconduct in the Cruz case, which eventually resulted in indictments against many members of the law enforcement and prosecutorial communities. The Innocence Project is committed to exposing such injustice and to bringing about changes in Illinois law that will prevent such cases from continuing to strain the justice system."
UIS' Downstate Illinois Innocence Project is housed within the Institute for Legal and Policy Studies. Under its auspices, students in Legal Studies and other degree programs provide research and investigative assistance to attorneys who are helping individuals who have been arrested, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned for crimes that the Project believes they did not commit.
For more information, contact Golden at 553-7171 or Clutter at 899-4353.