Exonerated: Julie Rea Acquitted Of Fatally Stabbing Her 12-Year-Old Son While He Slept

After she'd served more than a decade in prison, a serial killer confessed to her son's murder. Julie was retried and acquitted.

January 10, 2019

Julie Rea [The National Registry of Exonerations]

Julie Rea [The National Registry of Exonerations]

By: Catherine Townsend

LAWRENCEVILLE, IL — On the morning of October 13, 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was brutally stabbed to death in his bed while he slept. His mother, Julie Rea, was convicted of her son’s murder — a killing that shocked the tiny town of Lawrenceville, Illinois.

After she served more than a decade in prison, a serial killer confessed to her son's murder, enabling Julie to be retried and acquitted.

Julie testified that she woke up that night to the sound of her son’s screams and rushed into his room, where she was confronted by an intruder. She fought back and struggled with the masked assailant before he ran out the door into the backyard and escaped.

"I was screaming for help. I fell to the ground, and the person was behind me … hitting the back of my head, hitting my face into the ground," Julie told ABC News in 2007.

On October 12, 2000, a Lawrence County grand jury indicted her for the murder of her son. Julie, who had been pursuing a PhD at Indiana University, was taken into custody and charged in 2000.

“Surviving your child’s murder, only to find out that you’re being accused of murdering your child, is a kind of trauma that I wouldn’t wish on any living being,” Rea told The New York Times. “I wouldn’t wish it on a snake.”

At her trial in 2002, the prosecution claimed that she killed her son because she was angry that, following a bitter custody battle with his father, Len Kirkpatrick, the boy’s father, had won physical custody of him while she had only weekend visitation.

The case against Julie was largely circumstantial, but prosecutors questioned her behavior on the night her son was killed — and Kirkpatrick portrayed her as unstable and volatile.

Kirkpatrick, a police officer, said he'd suspected his wife from the beginning. At trial, her lawyer advised her not to testify — a decision that many observers believed helped seal her fate.

On March 4, 2002, the jury found Julie guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to 65 years in prison.

She'd been partially convicted on the strength of the testimony of two bloodstain-pattern analysts.

In 2004, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who'd committed similar crimes in Missouri and Texas, confessed that he had broken into Julie's home, taken a knife from a butcher block in the kitchen, and stabbed a young boy to death.

The Downstate Innocence Project took the case, and eventually were able to find evidence that suggested that Sells had been in the area at the time of the crime.

They also mounted a vigorous defense against the state’s forensic testimony, as the reliability bloodstain-pattern analysis as a forensic science had recently been called into question.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed Rea’s conviction and remanded the case for retrial. In 2004, the initial verdict was thrown out on a technicality, and Julie was freed on probation. The Center on Wrongful Convictions continued to work the case and found Rea a pro bono legal team.

Eventually, the case was retried in 2006 in Hamilton County. The jury heard a tape of the Sells confession, which the prosecution maintained was false. Julie's lawyers also presented forensic evidence that indicated that an intruder had killed her son and fought with her — and claimed that police failed to collect fingerprints and other fiber evidence at the scene.

This time, the jury found her not guilty. She was granted a Certificate of Innocence on November 29, 2010, and was awarded $87,057 from the Illinois Court of Claims.

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