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UIS Downstate Illinois Innocence Project helps Rea-Harper file petition for executive clemency

September 23 , 2003

SPRINGFIELD - Julie Rea-Harper, a Lawrenceville woman convicted of the 1997 slaying of her 10-year-old son, has filed a petition with the Prison Review Board asking for executive clemency.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, affiliated with the Institute for Legal, Administrative, and Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, working through Director of Investigations Bill Clutter, assisted Rea-Harper in investigating her claim of innocence.

In the petition, Rea-Harper cites new evidence uncovered by the Innocence Project that ties convicted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells to the murder. The petition urges Gov. Rod Blagojevich to grant her a full pardon based on actual innocence of the crime.

Rea-Harper's husband, Mark, and her parents, Jim and Jane Rea, delivered a copy of the petition to the governor's office today. "We are going directly to Governor Blagojevich to ask him to intercede so that our daughter will not have to languish in prison for a crime she clearly did not commit," said Jim Rea.

In March 2002, a Lawrence County jury found Rea-Harper, 34, guilty of first-degree murder, dismissing her claim that an unknown, masked intruder stabbed her son, Joel Kirkpatrick, to death as he lay sleeping. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison in May 2002.

Two months later, Sells admitted killing Joel to Texas author Diane Fanning, who at the time was conducting research for her book, Through the Window, which details Sells' murder of 13-year-old Kaylene Harris in 1999. UIS student Jonica Sharp assisted in the investigation by contacting the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and confirming that Sells could not have heard about details of an ABC 20/20 report that led Fanning to talk to Sells about the crime and eventually obtain his confession. Jonica also provided further corroboration that Sells is Joel's killer by chronicling all of the crimes in which Sells' weapon was a knife from the victim's own kitchen.

The Innocence Project investigation uncovered additional evidence linking Sells to the scene of Joel's killing, including eyewitness accounts of a man matching his description in Lawrenceville at the time of the murder.

Sells, on Texas' Death Row for the Harris slaying, has confessed to more than 50 murders in 12 states over a 17-year period. Investigators with the Texas Rangers have conclusively corroborated 14 murders that Sells claimed he committed, including killing four members of an Ina, Illinois, family in 1987.

After Sells' admission to the Ina killings was widely reported in March 2000, Jane Rea contacted the Lawrence County sheriff to suggest someone like Sells might have murdered Joel, whose stabbing death matched the serial killer's pattern of slayings. But, according to the petition, police did not pursue this hunch and ignored other promising leads, including numerous reports of a stranger in town who matched the suspect that Rea described to police.

Under the auspices of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, UIS students and faculty provide research and investigative assistance to individuals who have been imprisoned despite the existence of strong evidence that they are not guilty. The Project previously helped gain exoneration for Keith Harris, who spent 22 years in prison for an attempted murder he did not commit.

More information about the case is available. For more information about the Downstate Innocence Project, contact UIS professors Larry Golden or Nancy Ford at (217) 206-7885 or (217) 206-6358, respectively, or Clutter at (217) 899-4353.