Untangling a Murder Mystery

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."

nullPlay
null

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."

The jury needed only five hours to find Rea Harper guilty of first-degree murder, and she was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Maintaining Her Innocence

As Rea Harper faced the grim reality of the verdict, she continued to maintain her innocence. Shortly after her incarceration, when "20/20" reported on her case, she delivered a desperate cry for help, insisting that she was not the murderer of her only child.

Help came first from an unlikely source. Diane Fanning, a crime writer from Texas, saw Rea Harper's story on "20/20" and found herself moved by her proclamation of innocence.

Fanning was finishing a book on the brutal history of Tommy Lynn Sells, a death row serial killer with a history of drug addiction. As part of her regular correspondence with Sells, she mentioned her doubts about Rea Harper's conviction.

To her astonishment, Sells later confessed to Joel's murder, describing how on the night in question he had entered a stranger's house in the same area, stabbed someone repeatedly while the person slept, and then grappled with a woman as he made his escape.

"I didn't tell him who she was, I didn't tell him where it happened, I didn't tell him when it happened, nothing," said Fanning. "And he popped back [with] a letter and said, 'Was that murder you were talking about one that happened two days before the one I did in Springfield, Mo.? Say maybe on the 13th?'"

Joel was killed Oct. 13 … two days before police say Sells had raped and murdered 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney in nearby Springfield, Mo.

A Second Chance

The confession came amid a surge of renewed interest in Rea Harper's case. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and the Chicago law firm Schiff Hardin decided to represent her in her appeal pro bono and would spend -- in time and money. The equivalent of $1 million on her defense.

In 2004, more than two years after her conviction, the initial verdict was thrown out on a technicality, and Rea Harper was freed on probation.

The retrial began in summer 2006. The court ruled that serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells' confession would be permitted as evidence in her new trial, despite questions about its credibility. Meanwhile, the court ruled that some of the damaging testimony from Rea Harper's ex-husband would not be allowed.

Defense attorney Ron Safer maintained that Rea Harper's first lawyer had been in over his head, and that despite evidence to the contrary, police had unjustly focused on her as their prime suspect from the very beginning.

"All you have to do is examine the physical evidence and the circumstantial evidence for a concentrated couple of days," he said, "and you can reach no other conclusion but Julie was 100 percent innocent.

"These police officers decided 30 seconds into this investigation that Julie had done it," Safer said. "They had who they believed was the perpetrator, and then they shaped the evidence to that end."

Safer also said that the police never looked for evidence of an intruder.

"There were fibers on the scene -- they never collected them," he said. "Why not? They didn't wanna know.

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he continued. "[The police] say there's no evidence of a third person. They didn't look for the evidence. They didn't even fingerprint the scene."

Safer also argued that if Julie had stabbed her son to death, his blood would have drenched her clothing.

"This was a bloody scene," he said. "There was blood everywhere, spattering all directions … the T-shirt that Julie was wearing was virtually pristine."

Celebrating Justice

In sharp contrast to the first trial, Rea Harper was encouraged to take the stand and tell her story in her own words. This time the jury saw a mother who was believable and sympathetic.

One juror said, "There is no way that she could have done this to her own son. No way."

And another said, "Her son is gone, her whole world is shattered."

The trial lasted two weeks. After 12 hours of deliberation, the jury found Julie Rea Harper not guilty.

When asked if it takes more than $1 million to prove you're innocent in America today, Safer said, "If you have prosecutors who are willing to go on a crusade to ignore the evidence, who are unaccountable, who are unchecked, then yes, it takes a million dollars to even those scales."

For Rea Harper and her defense team, the verdict was long overdue.

"Today is a day to celebrate justice," Safer told the media after Rea Harper's exoneration. "Today is a day to begin a healing process, and begin a mourning process that has been delayed nine years."