Untangling a Murder Mystery

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In the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 1997, Julie Rea was sleeping in her home when she was awakened by a scream. Concerned about her son, Joel, she went to investigate and yelled his name. But his bed was empty. Julie said she then struggled with a masked intruder, chasing him through the house, bursting through two glass doors and into the backyard.

"I didn't know where Joel was, and I didn't know what to do," said Julie Rea Harper, who remarried in 2001 and now goes by her married name. "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."

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Then, she said, the intruder walked away, removing the mask under a streetlight before vanishing into the night.

Within minutes, police arrived. Julie had a bruise over her eye and a gash on her arm. Police immediately searched her home and found Joel dead, his T-shirt bloody from multiple stab wounds to his chest.

Both Julie and her ex-husband, Len Kirkpatrick, were questioned by police. After a bitter divorce, they had held joint custody of Joel, although Kirkpatrick -- remarried and working as a police officer -- had their son most of the time. Police quickly ruled Kirkpatrick out as a suspect, because he wasn't anywhere near the scene that night.

Rea Harper, who was at the time commuting to school to finish her doctorate in psychology, primarily saw Joel on weekends. Although she had no criminal record, Kirkpatrick suspected his ex-wife from the beginning.

"I think it was simply a matter of 'If I can't have Joel, you can't either,'" he said.

But there was no hard evidence directly linking anyone to the crime. Frustrated by a number of dead-end leads and little physical evidence, the case came to a standstill. Local authorities continued to press Rea on the details of her story, and special state prosecutor Ed Parkinson was put on the case. He believed there was a solid case against Rea, and he quickly pressed for an indictment.

'I Didn't Commit This Crime'

"To believe her, you would have to believe that this assailant came into her home in the middle of the night, in dark clothes, hiding his identity by the use of a mask, for the sole purpose of killing a 10-year-old boy," said Parkinson. "And after he accomplished his result he pulled off the mask to reveal his identity to her. Nonsense."

In October 2000, she was indicted for the murder of her son, Joel. A year-and-a-half later, the case went to trial. She steadfastly maintained her innocence throughout.

"I didn't commit this crime," she told "20/20" when we first reported on her case in 2002. "I could not. I'm not capable. I would not."

The case went to trial during spring 2002.

Armed with only circumstantial evidence, the prosecution put Rea Harper's character on trial. Witness after witness questioned her behavior and demeanor at the scene, and in the courtroom. Her former husband, Kirkpatrick, portrayed her as a volatile and unstable woman.

Despite these direct attacks, Rea Harper's lawyer made the controversial decision not to have her testify, worried about her ability to stand up to the prosecutor.

Not hearing from Rea Harper seemed to seal her fate. One juror said, "I needed to hear her tell me that story. I looked at her for two weeks, stared her in the eyes for two weeks. I wanted her to tell me that story."

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