Friday, June 17, 2011

When Innocence Is Not Enough

Julie and Joel

If your child were murdered and you were charged with committing that homicide but you knew you were not the perpetrator, how do you cope with knowing that your innocence simply was not enough to pull you out of the vortex of a criminal justice system operating in an alternative reality?

Can you imagine anything worse ever happening to a parent?  I can't.

It is what happened to Julie Rea after the murder of her ten-year-old son Joel Kirkpatrick.  She described the intruder in her home.  She suffered injuries that the emergency room doctor said could not have been self-inflicted.  She passed lie detector test.  Law enforcement did not believe her. 

Represented by an inexperienced, court-appointed attorney, she was convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Initially, I did not believe her, either.  I did not place any credibility in what was said by Julie, her friends, her family or her attorneys.   Then, I heard the prosecutor speak.  He said that there were no stranger fingerprints in the house; that no stranger would come into the house to kill a child; that the violence of the crime proved the perpetrator was someone very close to the child; and that a person does not come into someone's home without a weapon and pull a knife out of the kitchen drawer and use it to kill.

That's when I knew Julie Rea might not be guilty because I'd been interviewing serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells for my book Through the Window.  He did all those things at crime scenes.  I didn't suspect him then but thought someone just like him could have committed the crime. 

When I wrote to Sells about what the ridiculous things the prosecutor said, without any details of names, places or dates, he wrote back asking if the crime was committed a couple days before his murder of Stephanie Mahaney in Springfield, Missouri--maybe on the 13th.  That was how his confession began.  Still, I was skeptical until Bill Clutter, investigator for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, found corroborating testimony in the town of Lawrenceville, Illinois.

Julie Rea and Diane Fanning
From that moment on, I was convinced and was determined to do what I could to help find justice for Julie Rea.  The Center for Wrongful Convictions and an extraordinary Chicago defense attorney, Ron Safer, became involved.  Julie got a new trial and was acquitted of the crime.  Just last month, she received a Certificate of Actual Innocence from the State of Illinois. Julie handed me the Defender of the Innocent Award from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project--definitely the highlight of my career as a crime writer.

Whenever anyone maligns the True Crime genre or is dismissive of my writing, I will always think of Julie and the role my book played in her tragic story.  It is just one example of why I think the genre makes a significant contribution and why I feel compelled to keep writing it.

But still something was missing and that was Justice for Joel.  After his murder, if the sheriff's office would have paid any attention to reports of a suspicious stranger in town, maybe deputies could have found Tommy Lynn Sells before he killed again.  But, instead, they myopically focused on proving Julie's guilt, hid some evidence from the defense and ignored anything that did not fit their theory of the case.

Today, even though the state has completely exonerated Julie Rea, the State's Attorney's Office refuses to investigate further--refuses to find Justice for Joel.

This Sunday night, on the Investigation Discovery channel, at 10 pm Eastern, On the Case with Paula Zahn presents A Mother's Nightmare, the story of Julie Rea, her son Joel and the many people including me, who stood up to find Justice for Julie and Joel.

Throughout the trial of Casey Anthony, Diane Fanning, author of Mommy's Little Girl, writes daily about the the pursuit of Justice for Caylee Anthony on her blog, Writing Is a Crime.


Breccia said...

kudos to Ms.Fanning. A victim, Ms.Julie Rea, re-victimized by law enforcement finds a small amount of justice due in large part to Ms.Fanning.

Unknown said...

Thsnk you, Breccia.

Anonymous said...

Great story but also scary. She did not get exonerated by the system that's supposed to serve and protect all of us but through the intervention of Ms Fanning. In fact Julie Rea came very close to being locked up for the rest of her life for something she didn't do.

Maybe we need some sort of system that punishes prosecutors when stuff like this happens. I'm not suggesting that the D.A. should swap places with the person who gets wrongfully convicted (though it's an appealing idea) but a hefty financial compensation to victim paid from the prosecutors private funds would be in order and maybe make them more responsible in their work...

A Voice of Sanity said...

It just goes on and on and on and on. When will this stop?

Unknown said...

Voice of Sanity, It will go on until there is punishment for the abuse of power by prosecutors. You would think that the high number of exonerations in this country would jolt the system into taking action.

Lucy Frost said...

Diane, all I can think is God bless you for what you did to free Julie.

My heart hurts for all Julie has been through, beginning with the incredibly traumatic loss of her beloved Joel. May she find peace and strength as she rebuilds her life.

You know that I have a personal stake in the innocence movement because of my niece, Hannah Overton. It's a conviction I never imagined could occur in America, but I now know that Hannah's case is one of thousands of innocent people wrongly convicted.

Will the many exonerations jolt the system?

My expectations are low in that regard.

However, as a first step, we could at least have an Innocence Commission that examines the case, pinpoints what went wrong and makes recommendations for legislation and practices that would address those problems.

In this case, the myopic investigative approach appears to have set the course, and the prosecutor's practices made it worse.

When an airplane crashes, a federal agency swoops in and assesses what went wrong. The result is that our aviation system gets safer all the time.

We need the same approach for criminal justice.

Sandy said...

There are many times in our justice system that the scales just don't balance and that is a shame.

Camille Kimball said...

This is simply fantastic, Diane. I stand up and applaud for you, loud and passionately. These true crime books we write do take us places no one else seems to go. We are not bound by anything but the story, the truth. I can not think of any better example of how profoundly these books can change a life than this. GREAT JOB!!!

DrGina said...

Wonderful story Diane! To know that your work helped free an innocent must inspire you to press on.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Diane Fanning said: "Voice of Sanity, It will go on until there is punishment for the abuse of power by prosecutors. You would think that the high number of exonerations in this country would jolt the system into taking action."

In Canada:
Systemic Causes of Wrongful Convictions

In the USA:
Murder Case Against Ralph Armstrong Dismissed After Prosecutor Hid Evidence of His Innocence

When will wide ranging inquiries be held?

Unknown said...

Sursum, You made an excellent analogy with the FAA. I fear that an Innocence Commission would not be considered by anyone in this current financial climate. But it's time is certainly past due.
Thank you Sandy, Camille and Dr. Gina. Few things are as meaningful to me as being help to stand up for what was right and make a difference in another person's life.
Voice of Sanity. Excellent article from Canada. I wish I could anwer your closing question. I wish I could say next week. There are so many tragic consequences of prosecutorial misconduct: the individual's loss of liberty, the family's devastation, and the real perpetrator running free victimizing others.

Clair Devers said...

Diane - This makes me so proud! I wish there were more people in this world who stood up for things they know are wrong. You give me hope in a sometimes hopeless world. Much Love to you!