Rea-Harper conviction overturned

Monday, June 28, 2004 11:45 AM CDT

By DAVE FOPAY, Staff Writer

CARBONDALE -- An Illinois appeals court has thrown out the first-degree murder conviction of Julie Rea-Harper for the 1997 stabbing death of her 10-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick of Charleston.

The 5th District appellate Court ruled Thursday that Rea-Harper didn't get a fair trial in March 2002 when a jury convicted her of killing Joel at her home in Lawrenceville while he was visiting for the weekend. Harper was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

The judges said they didn't consider the reported confession of Texas serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Instead, the court said the trial judge shouldn't have allowed a special prosecutor to try the case over defense objections.

Joel's father, Len Kirkpatrick of Charleston, said he was "floored" when he heard about the court's ruling.

I was disappointed but at the same time I feel like it's necessary to stay positive and focused about the real issue, and that is to see that justice is done in this case," he said.

Kirkpatrick said the 65-year sentence Rea-Harper received isn't enough to make up for the loss of a child, but the appellate court's ruling opens the possibility for a new conviction and a new sentence that's "more just."

Authorities and Rea-Harper's supporters have both noted parts of Sells' statements that they say support their respective positions about the claim that he broke into the house and killed Joel.

Lawrence County State's Attorney Todd Reitz, one of the prosecutors in Rea-Harper's case, called the appellate court's ruling a "technicality" and noted that the court also said the case's evidence supported a guilty verdict.

"It's our intent to retry her," Reitz said.

Special prosecutor Ed Parkinson, a lawyer in the state Appellate Prosecutor's Office, had not been sworn in as an assistant state's attorney before calling a grand jury or trying the case, the court said.

"Because the defendant specifically challenged the legitimacy of the prosecutor, the trial court erred in allowing an attorney from the appellate prosecutor's office to prosecute the case," the court said. "The defendant had a right to be prosecuted by someone with proper prosecutorial authority, a personal privilege she did not waive."

Reitz said the request for a special prosecutor was made before he took office. The trial court shouldn't have granted then-State's Attorney Michael Crowe's request to appoint a special prosecutor because there was no conflict or anything preventing Crowe from handling the case himself, he said.

"There really wasn't any reason Crowe couldn't do it," Reitz said. "Therefore, that order was wrong."

One of Rea-Harper's lawyers, Allen Wolfe of Orion, Mich., was jubilant.

"I'm a former federal and state prosecutor," Wolfe said. "I can say without a doubt justice has been done."

He'll soon ask that Rea-Harper be released from the Dwight Correctional Center on bond, he said. However, Reitz said that would be "subverting the process" because the appellate court's actual ruling hasn't been released yet, so it's not known if it includes any instructions concerning her release. He said he didn't know when the details of the court's ruling would be known.

Rea-Harper, now 35, was studying educational psychology at Indiana University when she was arrested in 2000. Police say she savagely stabbed Joel in the middle of the night as he slept in her home. She had recently lost custody of him to her former husband, Len Kirkpatrick, in a bitter court battle.

Rea-Harper told police she wrestled with a masked intruder who attacked her son and got away. But prosecutors told the jury there were no signs of a struggle at the home.

Several of Harper's friends and family, including her second husband, Mark Harper, have been working for her exoneration ever since she was convicted. Rob Warden, director of Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions, which worked on the appeal, said Rea-Harper would be aided in any new trial by new evidence that has surfaced since her first one, including Sells' confession.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.