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Thursday, May 13, 2004 10:56 am

Answers needed in the Julie Rea-Harper case

After two years and two nationally televised exposés of the case of Julie Rea-Harper, who was convicted of murdering her child, why has the state of Illinois taken little significant action to seek the truth?

Convicted serial child killer Tommy Lynn Sells has confessed to the 1997 murder of Rea-Harper's son, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, and, despite state denials, tells a story too accurate to be written off as coincidence.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project has documented 40 detailed points of comparison, including Sells' correct rendering of the route from the highway to Rea-Harper's former home, accurate descriptions of the home's interior, and his having to strike Rea-Harper in the face in her back yard to escape from her. The crime has Sells' signature all over it, right down to the use of a weapon found in-house.

But serious doubts about Rea-Harper's guilt are nothing new.

Crime-scene photos show a veritable bloodbath in the young victim's room, but neither Rea-Harper nor her clothing bore a single drop of spattered blood (only a small "transfer pattern" from making contact with someone who did carry the victim's blood), and police investigators found Rea-Harper's sinks, toilets, washer and dryer free of blood. A search of her septic tank and lines also failed to reveal any blood. If she was the killer, where was the blood?

A physician said Rea-Harper's injuries were not self-inflicted, and even a novice investigatorcould readily conclude from the horizontal scrapes on her knees that she had struggled with an intruder, as she claimed unwaveringly from the beginning. Historically, fake victims have inflicted serious injuries on themselves in their attempts to be convincing. Rea-Harper was thoroughly battered but suffered no life-threatening injuries. Common sense fills in the rest: Do make-believe victims say they've tangled with unarmed intruders? Do they take the unpredictable, seriously life-threatening risk of hurling themselves through glass doors -- twice?

But that's scarcely the beginning.

Why was evidence pointing away from Rea-Harper, including an unidentified bloody shoe print on a piece of broken glass, ignored? Why was debris under her and her sons' fingernails -- likewise two unidentified dark hairs found at the scene, one in the boy's hand -- never tested? The state says that mitochondrial-DNA testing was not available during the original investigation. That may be true, but it was available by the time Rea-Harper was put on trial more than four years later. Why were these samples not tested then?

Polygraph examinations, though not admissible in court, are nonetheless routinely used in police investigations. Almost without exception, one examination deemed entirely truthful is enough to turn attention away from a suspect and secure his or her immediate release. Rea-Harper passed two. Neither revealed any sign of deception. Why did the state refuse to release her when it had two clean polygraphs and no physical evidence tying her to the crime?

And why wasn't Rea-Harper charged until more than three years after the fact? Had new evidence been uncovered in that time? Not one scrap.

But where there was no new evidence, there may have been new players with an agenda to write their own version of justice.

Len Kirkpatrick, Rea-Harper's ex-husband, had earlier remarried to a circuit-court clerk in a neighboring county. After the crime, he became a sheriff's deputy. Only then was Rea-Harper indicted, with Kirkpatrick her chief accuser. The deputy was the state's key witness at trial, where he rained a daily shower of tears in the courtroom.

But as he attacked Rea-Harper's character on the stand, did anyone ask about his vow, in writing, to destroy his ex-wife? Were witnesses called who could have testified to his character?

Of all the unanswered questions in the Rea-Harper case, the most important may be why Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Gov. Rod Blagojevich have failed to order an investigation into the circumstances of Rea-Harper's prosecution.

This much is clear: If an error-laden legal system publicly swearing reform privately continues with business as usual, it runs the risk of losing whatever credibility it may have left. Of that, there is no question.

Julie Rea-Harper's supporters plan a "Free Julie Now" rally at the Capitol at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20.

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