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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 02:56 am

Stop wrongful convictions

After reading David Barnett’s op/ed [see Guestwork, “More important than repealing the death penalty,” Jan. 27] I would have to agree. Abolishing the death penalty does not cure the problem of innocent people being convicted by the state.

Case in point: In Oct. 1997, Julie Rea Harper was indicted in Lawrence County for the murder of her 10-year-old son, Joel. A good indication that it might be a wrongful conviction case was that the murder, which happened three years earlier, was not immediately solved. The case was three years old when she was indicted on capital murder charges.

Springfield attorney Kathy Saltmarsh gave Julie’s attorney my contact information. Julie’s attorney called and explained that her client had been awakened at 4 a.m. by her child’s scream from the room across the hall. When Julie entered the bedroom, she struggled with an intruder who dropped the knife that he had used to kill her son, Joel. The physical description Julie gave fit that of Tommy Lynn Sells, a St. Louis drifter who was facing capital murder charges in Del Rio, Texas. The crime was identical to the murder of Julie’s son. In the Texas case, Kaylene Harris’ mother slept through the attack on her child, who was stabbed at 4 a.m. with a knife that also came from the kitchen, the same modus operandi that occurred in Julie’s case. I told Julie’s attorney that Tommy Lynn Sells would be someone we would need to investigate.

When Julie filed a pro se petition seeking two capital-qualified attorneys, citing Supreme Court Rule 416, one of the reforms that was about to take effect on March 1, 2001, prosecutors announced a change of heart. They no longer wanted to seek the death penalty. Julie was without the resources to retain competent counsel or my services as her investigator. Without resources, Julie was unable to afford the private attorney whose services she retained.

It was only after she was convicted in 2002 that true crime author Diane Fanning, during the course of interviewing Tommy Lynn Sells about the Del Rio murder, heard his confession to a murder that he said occurred on Oct. 13, 1997, two days before he killed another child in Springfield, Mo. The details and date coincided with the murder of Julie’s son, Joel.

Now freed, Julie is organizing a national movement to highlight the plight of women who have been wrongfully convicted. Julie’s top priority is the Macon County case of Jeanette Slover, whom Julie meet while incarcerated at Dwight.

Like Julie’s case, the murder of Karyn Slover was not immediately solved. More than three years later, Jeanette and her husband and son were all indicted on capital murder charges. Their arrest occurred a few days after Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment. Their case was one of the first in Illinois to receive the death penalty reforms, like the Capital Litigation Trust Fund. As in Julie’s case, prosecutors announced they were choosing to reverse course on their earlier decision to seek the death penalty. The Decatur Herald and Review quoted the father of the victim:

“If you take away the death penalty, they can’t tap into that slush fund. As long as they’ve got that slush fund available, they’re going to use it,” said Hearn. “It’s all coming down to money. This cuts off the money flow.”

Macon County State’s Attorney Scott Rueter did not deny the allegations, and said the Capital Litigation Trust Fund was one of the issues discussed in the decision-making process. But Rueter also told the Herald and Review, “It’s not a main reason for what we’re doing. Any aspect that may affect the litigation of the case is a factor, and I can’t deny that we looked at that issue. …I don’t believe it was a main emphasis.”

The other reason, as in Julie’s case, was to avoid Supreme Court Rule 416, requiring the appointment of two capital-qualified attorneys. These were the reforms that the court adopted to prevent the conviction of an innocent person facing the death penalty.

With all of the attention, however, focused on the flaws of capital punishment, policy makers still need to address the flaws that remain for the majority of cases that go through the courts system.

Bill Clutter is a licensed private detective and is director of investigations at the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield. 
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