An Illinois woman who spent six years in prison for the wrongful conviction of murdering her son visited SIU Thursday.
Julie Rea’s 10-year-old son Joel was stabbed to death in their Lawrenceville home one night in October 1997. Rea was charged with capital murder for his death three years later, said Erica Nichols Cook, staff attorney for the Wrongful Conviction Grant of the Illinois Innocence Project. Rea was released in 2006 with the help of the independent nonprofit organization.
According to information from the Illinois Innocence Project, Rea gave police a detailed report of an intruder who randomly entered her home and targeted her child and her. Her son was killed with a knife that came from the home’s kitchen.
Rea told police she woke up at 4 a.m. after hearing her son’s scream. She said she survived a “vicious attack” by a man she found in Joel’s room, when she said the murderer dropped the knife and fled.
Despite Rea’s story, a jury convicted her of the murder in 2000. Cook said Rea appealed her conviction the same year, when William Clutter, a criminal defense investigator with capital conviction experience, read over her file.
Clutter told Rea’s attorney the assailant’s description and the crime details seemed like the work of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who had been recently arrested for the stabbing death of a 13-year-old in Del Rio, Texas.
Rea described the prosecutor as dramatic in front of the jury by having Rea’s ex-husband, who was a police officer, testify against her. Rea said he told the jurors she considered aborting Joel while she was pregnant.
“I never considered aborting Joel, but in the jurors’ mind, abortion is killing,” she said. “They now see me as a murderer who wanted to kill my baby then and just waited a little while down the line to do it.”
Cook said Sells confessed to the murder multiple times to several law enforcement officers with the exact detail and clarity that matched Rea’s statement she gave to police the night of the murder. To this day, he has never been charged for Joel’s death.
Rea said she passed two polygraph tests and had several family members speak highly of her as a parent.
“Everyone in my family except my ex-husband, who coincidentally couldn’t pass two questions on his polygraph regarding hiring someone to kill me, told officials what a great mother I was,” she said. “But, hey, he’s a police officer so he doesn’t count.”
Rea was a Ph. D. candidate for teaching at the University of Indiana at the time of her indictment.
“(Rea) is not your average woman who went to jail,” Cook said. “This experience has left a mark on her and changed the course of her life in many ways.”
Rea spoke of her criminal record, or lack thereof, and told the audience to be aware her situation is something that can happen to anyone.
“Other than a few traffic violations, I have nothing on my record at all,” she said. “I’ve done nothing for this to come about. It can happen to you. An officer of the law can put you in his car, put you in a cell and you will not see the light of day for quite a while.”
Rea said she doesn’t want Sells dead because that won’t bring Joel back.
“What I want out of Sells is to do the kind of good that Joel would have done in the world, and he better start now because he’s got a hell of a lot of catching up to do,” she said.
Rea, found not guilty of her son’s murder in July 2006, said she would not be a free woman said if it weren’t for the Illinois Innocence Project because she finally had someone to speak on her and Joel’s behalf.
The Illinois Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice, according to the organization’s website.
SIU and the University of Illinois Springfield and Champaign campuses are both involved with the project. William Schroeder, a professor at SIU’s School of Law, said Rea’s case was one of the first successful exonerations the group dealt with.
The Illinois organization recently helped exonerate Anthony Murray, a man convicted of the 1998 murder of a Centralia woman. He was released Oct. 31.