October 13, 1977, Julia Rea Harper woke up to the sound of screaming. She ran to her son’s room, finding his bed to be empty, and then encountered a masked intruder. She fought with him, eventually ending up in the backyard screaming for help. The intruder hit the back of her head repeatedly, and hit her face into the ground. Rea Harper still did not know where her son was. The intruder finally walked away, removing his mask as he left. Neighbors had called police, and they arrived minutes later. Julie had a gash on her arm and a bruise over her eye — and police found her son, Joel Kirkpatrick, dead. He had been stabbed multiple times in the chest.
Rea Harper’s ex-husband, Len Kirkpatrick, who had physical custody of Joel the majority of the time, immediately suspected her. He is quoted as saying “I think it was simply a matter of ‘If I can’t have Joel, you can’t either.'” Police investigated the crime for years, coming up with dead-end leads and not being able to tie anyone to the crime. Kirkpatrick, a police officer, was cleared as a suspect almsot immediately as his confirmed whereabouts put him nowhere near the scene of the crime. But Rea was at the home, and remained a suspect. Rea Harper maintained her innocence throughout the investigation, and as she was indicted for the murder in October 2000. She told 20/20 in an interview in 2002 “I didn’t commit this crime. I could not. I’m not capable. I would not.”
The case went to trial in the spring of 2002. Kirkpatrick testified that his ex-wife had never wanted Joel and had wanted to abort him as a fetus. This was not only very prejudicial, but also false–Rea Harper’s obstetrician testified that she was put on bed rest for the final weeks of her pregnancy and she strictly followed the orders for fear of losing the baby if she didn’t. Rea’s lawyers made the decision to not have her testify, which some jurors have said is what sealed her fate. Despite a lack of evidence and no motive, not hearing from Rea lead to a guilty verdict. Rea was sentenced to 65 years in prison for the murder of her only child.
Rea Harper’s story appeared on 20/20 in 2002 and she plead for help. Her cry of innocence was heard, by great chance, by Diane Fanning, a writer working on the story of Tommy Lynn Sells, a convicted murderer. In her correspondence with Sells, she mentioned that she thought this woman was innocent but did not give him details of where she was from or when it happened. She was shocked when he wrote back with details of the crime. His story matched that of Rea Harper’s presicely–he had broken into a home, stabbed “someone” repeatedly, then struggled with a women before leaving.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University had already decided to represent Rea Harper in her appeal and defense pro bono. Defense attorney Ron Safer said that investigators had decided early on that Rea Harper was the prime suspect, and shaped the evidence to match their story. They didn’t look for evidence of a third person, didn’t collect fibers or search for fingerprints. They didn’t admit that the injuries Rea Harper sustained that night could not have been self-inflicted. They didn’t note that Rea’s T-shirt was clean when they found her — not splattered with her son’s blood as it would have been if she had stabbed him. Safer encouraged Rea Harper to take the stand in her retrial. Her story, from her mouth and in her words, along with the confessions from Sells, resulted in a not guilty verdict.
Rea Harper is now among a group of women that have formed a Women’s Project with The Center on Wrongful Convictions, which will focus on the wrongful convictions of women.