By: Bill Clutter
When we mention the words “wrongful conviction” we usually think of men, perhaps because semen – the source of evidence typically tested for DNA – has lead to the exoneration of 266 men.
But there are infamous cases in U.S. history involving the wrongful conviction of women. The Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America involved the hanging of 19 people, mostly women, falsely accused of being harlots of the devil. To avoid execution, one had to confess sin. The only proof a church elder needed to see was the mark of the devil. Women were stripped of their clothing and all it took was a birthmark, or a mole to be offered as evidence. Even in modern America, there are some crimes for which women are often blamed – especially when children are murdered or die for unexplained reasons.
THE CASE OF JULIE REA
In June 2000, Katharine Llell, a Bloomington, Indiana defense attorney, called to discuss the case of Julie Rea, a Ph.D. student at the University of Indiana, who was being investigated for the murder of her ten-year old son, Joel. The crime happened on Oct. 13, 1997, in Lawrenceville, Illinois. Llell explained that a special prosecutor was trying to indict her client on capital murder charges, a curious development, since the elected state’s attorney of Lawrence County had already announced that there was not enough evidence to ethically indict anyone.
That statement aired during a special local TV report, Getting Away with Murder. Part one of the story focused on the murder of Joel. Julie’s chief accuser was her ex-husband who bluntly seated he believed Julie was “getting away with murder.”
The ex-husband suggested a motive theory—that the special prosecutor later embraced— that Julie couldn’t bear the thought of him having won custody of their only child two years before the murder.
The reality in Illinois is that courthouse politics can be a factor. Judges and state’s attorneys are elected officials, as are the circuit clerks who manage the court records. Julie’s ex-husband married into political power. His new wife was Circuit Clerk of Coles County, home of former Governor Jim Edgar (1991- 1999).
After entering his appearance, Julie’s attorney sent a letter to her admitting his concern that he might alienate the Coles County Circuit Clerk by representing her. He described feeling a cold shoulder from the Circuit Clerk’s staff and withdrew as Julie’s attorney.
The second segment of the TV report focused on the unsolved murder of the Dardeen family in Ina, Illinois, not far from Lawrenceville. In Nov. 1987, Ruby Dardeen was eight months pregnant, and the mother of three-year-old Peter. When police entered the crime scene of their home, Ruby was laying on her back and had given birth while being beaten to death with a blunt object. The baby, and Peter, who was lying next to his mother, were also beaten to death. The body of Ruby’s husband, Keith Dardeen, was found in a field a mile away, shot execution style in the back of the head, his penis severed and stuffed in his mouth. Their car, with blood evidence, was found 17 miles away, parked near the Benton County Courthouse.
Ironically, over a decade after the Dardeen murder, a television news reporter would link the two stories together.
TOMMY LYNN SELLS
A few months before that call from Attorney Liell, a breaking news story that the Dardeen murder had been solved caught my attention. A serial killer facing the death penalty in Texas had just confessed.
Tommy Lynn Sells, who lived in St. Louis when he wasn’t roaming the country as a drifter, had confessed to committing as many as 70 murders over a 20 year period. Texas Rangers described Sells as one of the most notorious serial killers that ever roamed this country. His killing spree came to an end in Del Rio, Texas. On New Year’s Eve of 1999, Tommy Lynn Sells made the mistake of leaving one of his victims alive.
At about 4 a.m., he slipped into a Del Rio home, took a knife from the kitchen and killed 13 year-old Kaylene Harris. Her mother and two siblings slept through the horrifying carnage. However, Krystal Surles, a brave young girl who was sleeping in the other bunk bed, survived. She pretended to be dead after he cut her throat. She assumed everyone had been killed, waited until the intruder left, then staggered a quarter mile for help. She recognized Tommy Lynn Sells as someone who had earlier visited the home.
It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out the similarities.
THE ASSAILANT IN JULIE’S CASE
Julie’s attorney explained the facts of her client’s case. It was Julie’s weekend for visitation. At 4 a.m., Julie was awakened by a child screaming, something alien to anything she had ever heard. She jumped out of bed, so rattled she left her glasses on the nightstand. She bounded across the hall to Joel’s dark bedroom where she bumped into someone. Later, police would find a bloody knife from Julie’s kitchen at the spot where they collided. Thinking her son was having a bad dream, Julie tried calming him. Suddenly, he punched her and darted out of the room. Her heart started racing. Joel’s bed was empty. Her first thought — was he kidnapped?
Confused, Julie ran after the man and caught up with him in the living room. As she attempted to grab him, he wheeled back and punched her again. She fell to the floor, grabbed hold of his left and held on tight as he dragged her across the carpet. A nurse at the hospital later observed rub burns on Julie’s knees.
The man exited through the kitchen and banged hard against the storm door leading out to the garage. He also broke out the glass of the other storm door leading out to the back yard. Police would later observe blood transfers that DNA identified as Joel’s. Julie continued her chase and caught up with the man in the back yard where he punched her hard, knocking her on her back. She got the best glimpse of him under a security light before he disappeared into the night. Julie ran across the street to a neighbor’s house, who called 911.
Police found Joel, barely alive, lying on the floor between the bed and his bedroom wall. He had been repeatedly stabbed and died at the scene. One of the deputies wanted to arrest Julie on the spot, but her injuries required five sutures to close the gash on her arm. Her eye had been blackened and a nasty bruise had formed around her eye.
Julie described the man as a 5-10, 130 lbs, brown hair. He was so skinny she thought he was a teenage boy. But the modis operandi and physical description seemed very familiar to me. I told her attorney that my investigation would focus on determining if Tommy Lynn Sells had been in the area at the time of Joel’s murder.
DEATH PENALTY REFORMS
Since prosecutors made it clear that they would be seeking the death penalty, Julie would receive the benefit of the new reforms in Illinois. The Capital Litigation Trust Fund had been created that year by lawmakers to provide funding for the appointment of investigators, experts, and private defense attorneys.
Chicago PI Paul Ciolino, and his staff, made it possible through investigation of the Anthony Porter case. Porter was 48 hours away from being executed when a stay of execution was issued by the Supreme Court to explore his mental fitness. Ciolino, and students from Northwestern University’s Journalism School, followed leads to the doorstep of the real killer, Alstory Simon. Ciolino’s videotaped confession from Simon led t Porter’s immediate release from death row.
This dramatic exoneration was one of many that occurred during the 1990s leading the governor to declare a moratorium on capital punishment while lawmakers worked on laws to prevent conviction of an innocent person facing the death penalty. A key reform was funding for pre-trial investigations to help develop evidence of ones innocence before trial.
The special prosecutor threatened to have Julie’s Indiana attorney sanctioned for practicing law in Illinois without a licence if she appeared in Lawrenceville to defend her client. After which, Julie filed a pro se petition seeking the appointment of two capital qualified attorneys citing a new Illinois Supreme Court rule that required minimum standards of legal competencey for attorneys defending a person accused of capital murder. This reform was intended to provide the best representation possible for a person facing the death penalty.
But, after julie filed this motion, prosecutors were able to manipulate the process to strip her of the resources essential to adequately defend her by announcing they would no longer seek the death penalty. That was the last contact I had with her attorney. Julie was assigned a public defender.
A MODERN DAY WITCH HUNT
Julie’s persecution was based on suspicious evidence not seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials.
Venue was changed to Fairfield County where the prosecutor elicited testimony from her ex-husband that Julie spoke of wanting an abortion after learning she was pregnant with Joel. Even if true, that testimony is impermissible for a jury to consider, but Julie denied it. As the daughter of a Free Methodist minister she embraced the life God gave.
During the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, there were two African American candidates, Alan Keyes and Barack Obama. Keyes ran on one issues — outlawing abortion. Obama won Illinois by 70% of the popular vote, but lost fairfield County to Keyes, who won with 72% of the vote. This was the electorate from which Julie’s jury was selected.
Her ex-husband also testified that Julie was obsessed with the number 13. The prosecutor tied it all together for the jury:
“Now what about the obsession with the number 13? Well, I will tell you what about it … She was born on December 13th, 1968. Her husband … was born on July the 13th. She insisted – from the evidence, she insisted that they be married on the very first 13th of he month following his 18th birthday … she drank a concoction on the 12th of July so she could have Joel on the 13th … Is it coincidence that Joel died on October 13th?”
The prosecutor’s reliance on this emotionally charged evidence was done with devastating effect. Julie was convicted in March 2002 and sentenced to 65 ears, what amounted to a life sentence.
After she was convicted Julie’s parents contacted the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
The turning point in Julie’s case was a story aired by ABC 20/20. Julie appeared on the program and told her story for the first time. True crime writer Diane Fanning, who was writing a book about the Texas murder of Kaylene Harris, happened to be flipping through channels and stopped at the statement of the special prosecutor:
“No one in this world except Julie Rea fits the killer … To believe her, you would have to believe that this assailant came into her home in the middle of the night … for the sole purpose of killed a 10-year-old boy. And yet he also forgot to bring a murder weapon along and used her kitchen knife to do it with … Total nonsense.”
The story prompted Fanning to writer to Sells:
“The other night I was watching a story on TV about a woman who was in jail for killing her son … After hearing that garbage, I believe it is very possible that woman is telling the truth. Tommy, I think if I never heard of you, I still would have thought these guys were idiots.”
Sells wrote back:
“About that woman claims someone brak (sic) in to her house? Was that maby (sic) 2 days before (sic) my Springfield MO murder? Maby (sic) on the 13th?”
The details of Sells’ confession to the murder of Julie’s song appeared in Fanning’s book “Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells.”
The special prosecutor reacted in typical fashion discounting the confession and accusing Sells of being a “serial confessor”. But it was the post-conviction investigation of the Innocence Project, particularly our video interview of Alan Berkshire, who encountered a drifter in a Lawrenceville diner the day before the murder that convinced the one lawman who knew Sells the best. I sent the video interview FedEx on a Friday. One Monday morning, I received a call from Ranger Allen:
“I just watched that interview of Alan Berkshire. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.” he said. “He described Tommy Lynn Sells to a T.”
Mr. Berkshire had immediately gone to the sheriff after hearing the news of Joel’s murder. “Now now Alan, we’re busy with a murder investigation.” said the sheriff. “But Sheriff, I saw your suspect.” Berkshire knew the drifter had come from St. Louis and that he had seemed focused on talking to Berkshire’s 11-year old son. But the sheriff made no report; the lead was never followed. Police could have caught Joel’s killer and the other victims might be alive today.
The state police already had a lead from a Greyhound ticket agent in Princeton, Indiana that a man appearing nervous and matching the suspect description Julie provided had purchased a bus ticket to Winnemucca, Nevada on the morning of Oct. 15, 1997. But, by the time investigators met the bus in Denver, the man had disappeared. He got off in St. Louis and traveled to Winnemucca on a later date. Ranger Allen cited this evidence as further support that Sells was the person responsible for Joel’s murder. “My timeline,” said Ranger Allen, “places him there on Dec. 15, 1997, verified by motel records at the Overland Motel.”
Texas Rangers are very conservative when it comes to confession since the embarrassment of Henry Lee Lucas, who falsely confessed to crimes he couldn’t have committed in the 1980s. Sells however, had provided details that only the killer would have known in the Dardeen case and the murder of Stephancey Mahaney in Sprinfield, MO, two days after Joel was murdered. Ranger Allen provided an affidavit in support of Julie’s petition requesting that her conviction be vacated based on the newly-discovered evidence of Sells’ confession. The appellate court vacated her conviction.
Prosecutors nevertheless, retried her for Joel’s murder. This time Julie was represented by a team of pro bono attorneys from Northwestern University Law School. A second jury, hearing the evidence of Sell’s confession and the testimony of Allen Berkshire and the Greyhound ticket agent, found her not guilty in July of 2006.