Just yesterday in my blog about Anthony Graves I discussed the issue of tunnel vision and gung ho investigators. Well, today here is a story that not only qualifies but in my opinion at a much higher degree despite the fact that Graves sat on death row for twelve years (sixteen years in prison total) and Julie Rea-Harper spent only about half of that in prison.
This case involved two different trials and when that happens there tends to be less specifics found on each individual trial. Sometimes when you dig pretty deep you can find out more things and it becomes one of those cases that you have to start piecing things together and then try to weed out what information is true and what information is false although has gone down in legend. So we'll start with what we do know as fact and that is that on the night of October 13, 1997 in Lawrenceville Illinois, ten year old Joel Kirkpatrick lost his life. Joel was visiting with his mother Julie Rea (she would later marry) and was in his bedroom sleeping. Authorities arrived to the home (who made the call?) and heard a story from Julie about an intruder. Julie stated that she had been awoken from sleep by a scream from her son. She said she ran to his room and did not see him but did see a masked man. She and the man had a struggle that led to outside. Eventually the man took off and as he did he removed the mask just as he was under a street light so she got a look at him. Investigators would find her son on the floor, wedged between the bed and the wall with nearly thirteen stab wounds.
I did a bit of a search on Lawrenceville and I would gander to guess that it is like many small mid-western towns, a few I have lived in. Crimes revolve around domestic disputes, vandalism and petty theft for the most part. The most violent re-occurring issue they have likely revolves around drugs. Sure there is probably the scattered burglary or arson, but murder is not seen often. I found a list of statistics that showed between the years 2006 and 2016 there was only one murder in Lawrenceville. Remember, Joel Kirkpatrick was murdered in 1997, a time of even less violent crime. This is a bad time period for law enforcement, especially untrained law enforcement. While bigger cities had changed their ways of processing crime scenes and knowing to who collect and how, it does not sound that if that information had made its way to Lawrenceville that anyone knew how to utilize it. It was reported at one time that the handling of the crime scene was so bad it was almost comical. One of the responding officer took video of the scene but did not realize until he got inside and someone told him that the light was not on on the camera so the first part of the video was dark and basically not useful at all. A crime scene photo was taken of the sheet on Joel's bed and presumably to show the cuts made by the knife but a defense attorney would point out there were hair and fibers seen in the photo that had not been collected and analyzed. These two things really could be possibly looked at as coming from a less experienced police force but the fact that no one took any fingerprints of the home, the bed, or even the knife that was apparently used cannot be explained so easily. And yet these same inexperience officers utilized luminol. We will get back to that and those results in a bit. In the end one has to ask if this really was a case of an inexperienced police force or if it was a result of jumping to conclusions fast and running with them.
As we all know the first people that are looked at are those closest to the victim and when the victim is a child there is no one closer than their parents. Of course Julie had been not just interviewed but she had been taken to the hospital where she was examined and her clothes were later analyzed. She had suffered some injuries herself. She had a black eye, scraped knees, puncture wounds on her feet and a large cut on her arm that required stitches. As far as her clothing there was only one spot of blood on her pajamas that experts later said was transfer blood. Joel's father, Len was also interviewed. Len would later apparently become a sheriff deputy but at the time of Joel's murder he was an insurance agent. Len and Julie had long divorced apparently and while Len had remarried Julie was going to school to further her education. The two apparently had a rather bitter custody fight but eventually Len received residential custody with Julie receiving visits and they shared legal custody. Authorities would learn that two months prior to the murder Julie had lost an appeal on the custody case. Needless to say Len had little good to say about his ex wife and made it clear that he was certain Julie had murdered Joel. In fact, it has been said that he became a deputy to not just get his son's murder solved but to make sure his ex-wife paid for it.
Investigators really did not need to hear Len Kirkpatrick's stories or feelings about his ex-wife. They already believed she was the real perpetrator. Despite that it took it took three years to indict and arrest Julie. Now, I do not proclaim to know the justice system everywhere but I do try to educate myself in areas, particularly when I come across something that sounds odd to me. Apparently Illinois has what is called the Illinois State Attorneys Appellate Prosecutors Division (aka SAAP). From my understanding this is a small group of “special” prosecutors that work around the state. They are often called in for a variety of reasons such as a small town not having the budget or equip to handle a large case, when they may need skills not available by their own prosecutors or of course when there is a conflict of interest. I never heard the exact reason that special prosecutor, Ed Parkinson was called in but it could have been any one of the above reasons. I gander to guess that it was likely more about the inexperience of the local prosecutors but I cannot say for certain.
Ed Parkinson was very vocal and very adamant that Julie Rea-Harper (who married again in 2001) was guilty. He would proclaim that there was no reason to believe her story that someone had come into her home in the middle of the night (authorities say there were no signs of forced entry), grabbed a knife from her own kitchen, attacked her child, then fought with her and then left her alive. The problem here was not just that there had been no evidence apparently collected to prove this theory of Parkinson's and things that could have been collected to point either to her guilt, or her innocence was never collected. So, it seems that when Julie Rea-Harper went on trial in the spring of 2002 the only course of action the prosecutor had was to go after her character. Much of the trial was spent going over her custody dispute with her ex-husband. Len Kirkpatrick testified against Julie describing her as a violent and vindictive woman. For her part Julie did not testify on her own behalf and many of the jurors later said they wish they had heard from her and heard her story. Ultimately Julie was convicted and was sentenced to sixty-five years. To the media Parkinson continued to almost repeat verbatim (and this would not be the last time) his initial assessment that Julie's story made no sense.
So now started the appeals process of Julie's conviction and a lot seemed to have happened. In 2004 her conviction was overturned. I only found references that it was “reversed on a technicality” but nothing specific per se but some of it may have had to do with serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. There was already buzz about him at that point. And, whether or not his statements were any sort of basis for her conviction being overturned is unclear, but what is clear is that he played a significant role in her re-trial in 2006.
So how did Tommy Lynn Sells become involved? Now, I am not going to get into all of Sells' crimes and what not at this point other than to say that he became one of the most notable serial killers of modern times. Many of his crimes involved the murders of children. But, more significantly many of them were murdered, in their homes (or at least taken out of them in the middle of the night) and attacked with weapons found in the home.
Julie's case had made it to television at some point and apparently the series 20/20 did an episode. At the time that it aired true crime writer Diane Fanning was in the process of writing a book about Tommy Lynn Sells. She would later say that she had watched this particular episode and was struck by comments made by Ed Parkinson stating that Julie's story was too unbelievable and outrageous. Fanning would claim that she had written Sells with few details about the case such as a young boy being murdered in his home, his mother claiming an intruder did so with a knife from the home and that she had fought with the attacker. Fanning, it seems, almost in a joking manner, to prod Sells told him about how Parkinson had said basically crimes did not happen that way. Of course Fanning knew differently considering she knew how Sells had operated. Fanning claims not only did she hear back from Sells but that he confessed. Now, Sells confessed to a multitude of crimes over the years and while some were proven to be true, there were just as many, if not more that were proven to be false. And, to be clear, it does not appear that to this day they could prove either way in this case. Sells was executed by the state of Texas in 2014.
At any rate with what little information that that Fanning claims to have given Sells he allegedly wrote her back with a confession and enough information to convince her, and many others that he was in fact involved. According to Fanning she never told Sells when the murder occurred but in his confession he explained much of what Julie had said happened (although some argue not exactly), but more importantly he told her the date of the crime. On October 15, 1997, just two days after Joel was murdered in his home in Lawrenceville, Sells had gone into a home in Springfield Missouri and abducted, raped and murdered a girl. This apparently had been proven. When talking to Fanning about Joel's case he allegedly stated that it had occurred two days prior to the attack in Springfield and he was correct. It has been alleged that there was no way of Sells knowing this as he supposedly did not have access to television and could have not known the specifics or the date. According to Fanning she wrestled with what to do with the information and decided to include it in the book she was writing. Whether she personally contacted authorities or any lawyers working for Julie is unclear. At some point there were reports that some hair fibers had been collected at the scene but never tested and that they were later sent off to a lab but it was unclear what the results were.
At any rate, eventually those working on Julie's case had caught wind of Sells' confession. Another bit of information was obtained by a private detective working on the case. Allegedly just a day or so after the crime a man had gone to the Greyhound bus station in Princeton Indiana, some forty miles northeast of Lawrenceville (and very close to where I currently live) and the agent at the desk thought he looked very familiar to the sketch that was making their rounds based on Julie's description. Now, there seems to be some controversy surrounding this too of course. Julie's description, as well as that of the agent, described a young man between 17 and 20 years old. Sells was 33 at the time, but I have not seen any pictures pertaining to what he looked at at that time. But, there was more to the Greyhound story. According to the agent at the desk the man had stated he was going to see his mother and had bought a ticket to a small town in Nevada. The town was Winnemucca. Investigators learned three things. First, Sells had lived in Winnemucca a few times in his life, secondly, the bus made a stop in St. Louis before changing buses and Sells' mother lived in St. Louis, and thirdly, the ticket itself was good for a year and could be used in a way in which parts of the trip could be used at different times. This means that the ticket buyer could have gone to St. Louis, stayed for a while and at any point over the course of the year made his way to Nevada. Investigators would discover that Sells had obviously been in Missouri around that time considering the crime committed on October 15th and that some three months later he was back in Winnemucca.
In fairness Parkinson (nor apparently Len Kirkpatrick) ever believed Tommy Lynn Sells' story and would proclaim that it seemed implausible that he would have murdered Joel in Illinois, then taken a bus to St. Louis and that same day go the 200 miles to Springfield where the young girl was murdered. It appears that Parkinson never even considered this to be an option and with that said it is unclear if he or anyone working on his team ever seriously looked into the claim.
At any rate, as I stated in 2004 Julie's conviction was overturned but before she could walk out of prison she was arrested and re-charged with murder. This time however it seems as though she was able to be released on bond while awaiting her second trial. Some of the information on this seemed a bit sketchy but that is the conclusion I pieced together. Her first trial had been conducted with a public defender. This next time around she was represented by the Innocence Project of Illinois that included at least six attorneys working on her case, most pro bono.
Julie's second trial ended in July of 2006 after two weeks of testimony. This time Julie did testify on her own behalf, but more importantly the judge in the new case disallowed testimony from Len Kirkpatrick that was simply to attack her character and based on his feelings toward his ex wife. The issue of Tommy Sells' confession were apparently discussed and as I stated earlier were dismissed by Parkinson. Now, I agree that his confession was not verified and there were issues that contradicted Julie's story. One was the issue of forced entry. Sells claimed he broke a window to enter the home. The window was broken apparently, but Julie had said it was broken in the struggle she had with the intruder. Another issue involved the fact that Julie said the intruder wore a mask and Sells claimed to have worn a hoodie that covered most of his face. In my opinion these were small inconsistencies.
The problem with the prosecution was that there literally was no evidence pointing to Julie. Now of course one could argue that if forensics had been gathered as they should have been anything that pointed to Julie could have likely been dismissed since she lived in the home, but that was not the whole issue. There was the issue of the lack of blood. Remember earlier I told you we would get back to the issue of luminol being used? Luminal had been used around the home and either that or apparently something else was used to check the drains of the home to see if there had been any clean up effort made. None were found and yet Julie only had the small spot of blood on her that experts say was transfer blood. I was even unable to determine just who this blood belonged to or if even the authorities knew. I believe this issue of using the luminol significantly showed the tunnel vision that was being used in this case. Why would authorities not take fingerprints or any other possible forensic evidence or even have anything that was taken tested and yet use luminol to look if there had been an effort to clean up the scene?
Throughout the second trial Parkinson continued to not just completely dismiss that Tommy Lynn Sells could have been responsible or that his confession had any credence, but also continued to argue that Julie's story did not make any sense, largely on the fact that a stranger had gone into the home, gotten a weapon from the home and killed a child. In my opinion this attitude severely hindered the case. Whether Tommy Lynn Sells actually committed this crime or not is insignificant to me. For Parkinson to say and claim that it was implausible as if implying that it is never done that way and yet have clear evidence from crimes Sells had committed in the past that I can and has been just as described seems unreasonable. Do I have to admit that the MO is odd? Yes, I would have to say so, and if during the first trial Parkinson truly believed that crimes did not happen that way I can even see him arguing it. However, by the second trial there was obviously evidence that at least one criminal (Sells) had in fact gone into homes, obtained a weapon inside and murdered a child. In my opinion Parkinson did not have good standing in completely arguing against it. It was not that he ever said that it could have happened that way no matter how unreasonable he believed it to be or that he found it improbable. It was that he apparently staunchly said criminals do not do that. He continued to say both before and after both trials that to believe Julie's story of an intruder entering her home, getting a weapon in the home and murdering the child was completely unreasonable and all but admonished anyone who thought it could be. His stance was.... she did it.... end of story... with nothing to back his theory.
In the end the new jury, after deliberating for twelve hours, found Julie Rea-Harper not guilty. The thing that I found most interesting is that not only did Parkinson not remain nearby the courthouse during deliberations as many of the family, friends, witnesses and defense, but he also apparently did not show for the verdict to be read. Suddenly Parkinson was no where to be found. He did issue a statement later pertaining to what I mentioned above, staying with his theory. I have only heard of a few cases in which an attorney has not been present at the reading of the verdict. One of those cases was in the Scott Peterson trial when his main lawyer did not attend but I have never heard of it in the case of a prosecutor. It seems that Parkinson must have known that he was going to lose the case and he was not going to stand and listen to it in real time. Then again, maybe I am wrong.
Several years later there was an article written discussing the issue of SAAP and their position of power in the state of Illinois. The article was discussing how Illinois is the only state with this sort of thing and that while these few prosecutors have been given so much power, resources and leverage the issue of public defenders and funds available to them have drastically decreased. Many believe that much of the reason Julie lost the first trial and was convicted was based on her defense and not just the lack of representation she received but the available funds to help her do so. In the second trial the picture of the sheet from Joel's bed was shown. The picture was apparently used to show the cuts in the sheet made by the knife and yet the defense pointed out the hair and fibers still seen on the sheet that had apparently either never been collected or at the least never tested.
Did Tommy Lynn Sells murder Joel Kirkpatrick? No one knows for sure. As I stated earlier he made many confessions and some were proven to be false. Many argue that the MO in this case did fit Sells and if they believe the story Diane Fanning told, without the information Sells was able to give an exact date, and many details that matched. It was said that as time went on Sells talked less and less about the crimes he committed that involved children. Many believe this is because while he felt less guilt and enjoyed the notoriety in cases that involved adults, those that involved children not only bothered him more but knew they caused him more problems in prison. For me, in the course of the charges against Julie, it does not matter if Sells was the murderer. Yes, it would be closure for a family if it could be proven, if in fact they are willing to accept any results if they were found. But, the core of the legal issue revolved around the persecution of Julie Rea-Harper. At that point and time it was the issue of the evidence.
If you ever saw the movie Law Abiding Citizen then you remember the line Jamie Foxx made to Gerard Butler... It's not what you know, it's what you can prove. While of course in the movie it did not turn out so well, the statement was very true. No matter how many investigators or prosecutors, or friends or family that “knew” Julie Rea-Harper had murdered her own son the ones in charge of getting those charges and the conviction forgot that statement. They not only proved nothing, and could not because of how the crime scene was treated, but they continued to stick with their theory, their ideas and their beliefs no matter how many things came forward and said that stance may not be completely true. It seemed very evident that they never looked at anyone other than Julie Rea-Harper and were intent on not just attempting to convince others of her guilt but it also looks as if they were just as intent on making sure nothing pointed to anyone else.