Convinced that Julie had murdered her 10-year-old son Joel, prosecutors were planning to seek the death penalty.
Julie (pictured below with Joel) described being awakened at 4 a.m. by her son’s scream. She went into Joel’s room, she said, where she was beaten by the man who broke into her home and stabbed her child to death using a knife from the kitchen butcher block. She described him having a “jerky” gait as he fled.
The case of Julie Rea Harper is classic tunnel vision—when police are so locked in on one suspect, in this case, the mother, that they totally disregard other evidence that may lead them to someone else. This crime, after all, happened at the very time when Boulder, Colorado police were pointing the finger at the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. We now know there was compelling evidence that an intruder committed that crime.
Julie’s attorney had been referred to me because she was in need of a private investigator with experience in capital and criminal defense. She had been informed about a new program in Illinois called the Capital Litigation Trust Fund that just went into effect. The Fund was created after private investigator Paul Ciolino uncovered evidence that exonerated Anthony Porter, who was at one time 48 hours away from execution.
Hearing the details of Julie’s description of the assailant, I told her attorney about a drifter by the name of Tommy Lynn Sells who was facing capital murder charges in Texas for killing a child after he broke into a home at 4 a.m.--his M.O. in many other crimes. I told her that Sells would be the starting point of my defense investigation. Sells was known to travel and commit murders in Southern Illinois.
A few months after this conversation, Julie was indicted by a special prosecutor, charged with a capital offense. Julie by this time was unrepresented by counsel because her Indiana attorney was not licensed to practice law in Illinois. So Julie filed a pro se motion requesting the appointment of two capital-qualified attorneys, citing new Supreme Court rules that require the appointment of two attorneys, well qualified and experienced in criminal defense, to represent anyone facing the death penalty.
Prosecutors responded by declaring that they no longer wanted the death penalty—not because they opposed capital punishment—but because their decision made it more likely that they could win a conviction. Prosecutors were willing to abandon their intent on taking Julie’s life because it made the odds of taking her liberty more likely.
Their decision meant that Julie would not have equal protection under the law. State funding that was designed to hire experts, such as my services as a private investigator, were no longer available to her. Two years later, Julie’s family contacted the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project to request our assistance. Our Project was just beginning, and depended on private donors. We had no State funding. Julie had been convicted of Joel’s murder by a jury in Fairfield County.
Although there was no direct evidence she committed the murder, her ex-husband and chief accuser gave testimony that Julie once entertained the idea of having an abortion upon hearing news that she was pregnant with Joel. It was an allegation that should never have been allowed to influence the jury’s decision, and one that Julie vigorously denied. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she was opposed to abortion based on her religious beliefs. However, her attorney did not resist or refute the testimony of her ex. The impact of this emotionally charged testimony on the jury was unfairly prejudicial. The effect it had on the jury is best demonstrated by examining the election results of the 2004 senate race between two African-American candidates: Barack Obama and Alan Keyes. A single-issue candidate, Keyes' one difference was his opposition to abortion. Keyes won Fairfield County with 72% of the popular vote--by the same margin Obama carried the entire state.
Within a year of being convicted, true-crime author Diane Fanning published a book detailing the crimes of child serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells (pictured right). In the book, Sells described killing a boy in southern Illinois after he was released from prison in 1997, as well as his struggle to get away from the child’s mother. The details of his confession mirrored the facts of Joel’s murder.
It was the investigation of our Project that corroborated Sells' confession, leading Texas Rangers to conclude that Sells’ confession was genuine. One would have expected prosecutors and police in Illinois to seek justice when presented with evidence exonerating Julie. But they persisted in trying her again after the appellate court reversed her conviction. This time, with the presentation of the new evidence, she was granted a fair trial. Julie-Rea Harper was acquitted.
In the twenty plus years I have worked as a criminal defense investigator, the greatest satisfaction is being able to witness an innocent client walk out of prison. That satisfaction overcomes the despair one feels in the years of working on these cases, when the word justice seems at odds with what is happening to your client.