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UIS Downstate Illinois Innocence Project plays role in acquittal of Julie Rea-Harper

July 26, 2006

SPRINGFIELD – Despite the not guilty verdict in the retrial of Julie Rea-Harper, the Downstate Innocence Project housed at the University of Illinois at Springfield points to her case as another example of a flawed criminal justice system in Illinois. The Innocence Project has provided significant investigative assistance to Rea-Harper and her legal team for the past several years.

On July 26, a jury in Carlyle found Rea-Harper not guilty of killing her son, Joel Kirkpatrick, in 1997 at her home in Lawrenceville, Illinois.

"Despite the death penalty reforms that were put in place to guard against an innocent person being wrongly convicted, the case of Julie Rea-Harper exposes serious flaws that still exist in our criminal justice system," said Nancy Ford, Innocence Project co-director.

In March 2002, a Lawrence County jury found Rea-Harper guilty of first-degree murder, dismissing her claim that an unknown, masked intruder stabbed Joel to death as he lay sleeping. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Joel's murder went unsolved for over three years as the State's Attorney resisted pressure to charge Rea-Harper with the murder, citing a lack of evidence. However, after the State's Attorney left office, the State Appellate Prosecutor's office was appointed as a special prosecutor and death penalty charges were filed against Rea-Harper in October 2000.        

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UIS Downstate Illinois Innocence Project

Only after Rea-Harper requested the protection of death penalty reforms, did prosecutors choose not to pursue the death penalty in her case.  

These reforms -- including access to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which underwrites the appointment of investigators, lawyers, and experts -- were put in place in January 2000, after Anthony Porter, 48 hours away from execution, was exonerated by a private investigator working with a Northwestern University journalism professor.

"The prosecutors' 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," said Ford.

A few months after Rea-Harper's conviction, Tommy Lynn Sells, currently on Texas' death row for a similar crime, admitted killing Joel during an interview with author Diane Fanning, who at the time was conducting research for her book, Through the Window.

The audiotape of Sells' confession played at Rea-Harper's retrial was obtained by prosecutors at the request of the Prisoner Review Board in October 2003 during a clemency hearing.         

Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Innocence Project and a private investigator who has worked on over 20 death penalty cases, considered Sells a likely suspect six years ago when he was first contacted by Rea-Harper’s attorney when she was facing the death penalty.

"When I heard Julie's description of the assailant I recognized a physical similarity with Sells," said Clutter. "This was also the type of crime he committed. I told her attorney that she needed to investigate whether Sells was in the Lawrenceville area at the time of the murder.  I never heard back from that attorney," said Clutter.

This was because prosecutors made the decision that deprived Rea-Harper of funds that were part of death penalty reforms.  Instead, she was assigned a public defender who did not have the training or experience to handle a capital qualified case, and she was convicted.

The following year, Fanning's book was published, including the chapter in which Sells confessed to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick.   

Clutter and students working with the Innocence Project obtained evidence, including witnesses who saw Sells in Lawrenceville the weekend Joel was murdered, that corroborated the confession. This evidence convinced Texas Ranger John Allen, one of the lead investigators in the murder for which Sells is awaiting execution, that Sells' confession was genuine.    

"There is little doubt that had Julie been provided with the resources to adequately defend herself when she was first arrested, the injustice of her having to spend nearly three years in prison could have been prevented," said Ford.

Ford called for lawmakers to consider extending Capital Litigation resources to all persons facing murder charges that eligible for capital punishment, regardless of a prosecutor’s decision not to seek the death penalty.  "Further reforms are needed to protect innocent people facing life sentences or lengthy prison terms," said Ford.

Larry Golden, an emeritus professor at UIS and one of the Innocence Project directors, said, "We are delighted that Mrs. Harper’s innocence has been vindicated.  But we must understand that her victory is due to support most other innocent people in Illinois prisons do not have.  Julie had the support of family and friends from the very beginning of her ordeal.  She had the work of the Innocence Project, and she had the legal help of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions and two of the best criminal defense attorneys in Ron Safer and Jeff Urdangen."

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 further information, contact Golden at 217/553-7171 or Clutter at 217/899-4353.

    The University of Illinois at Springfield, one of three U of I campuses, is a small, public liberal arts university that offers 42 degree programs – 21 bachelor’s, 20 master’s, and the Doctorate of Public Administration. UIS has a special mission in public affairs and service and is known for extraordinary internships, a wireless campus, extensive online offerings, and a commitment to teaching.