Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted

Hend Eid, Grace Johnson, Guest Writers

On October 13, 1997, Julie Rea’s 10-year-old son was stabbed to death in the middle of the night. Despite detailing the intruder and crime with complete clarity, Julie became the primary suspect in her son’s murder. Immediately after being notified of the crime, criminal defense attorney– Bill Clutter–connected the attack to the child serial killer that had been recently arrested in Texas. Julie’s description of the crime and the method of killing determined by the autopsy matched the technique of Tommy Lynn Sells, the Texas child serial killer. 

Despite this correlation and no motive or evidence on Julie’s behalf, she was charged with capital murder in 2000 by a special prosecutor after the State Attorney declined to press charges due to a lack of evidence. 

After three years of the ongoing investigation, Julie had spent much of her savings on private counsel, so she has left no choice but to file a pro se petition requesting two capital-qualified attorneys to defend her. However, since Julie was not receiving the death penalty, the prosecutor prevented her from receiving this benefit. 

Julie was convicted in March 2002 and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

A few months later, Julie’s case aired on ABC, and Diana Fanning, a true crime author, viewed the program. She was familiar with Tommy Sells and contacted him in prison. During the interview, Sells confessed to a crime similar in nature to Julie’s son. The release of the confession opened a new investigation into Julie’s case. The investigation brought two new witnesses, one that saw Sells in the area on the weekend of the murder, and the other sold Sells a bus ticket to Texas. 

During the retrial, inaccuracies in the interpretation of the crime scene were reported, and evidence against Sells was presented. An audio recording of Sells detailing the crime matched Julie’s own description of the crime. The Project was also contacted with new evidence that the Sheriff Deputy that testified had provided false evidence. 

Julie was released from prison in 2006.

Much of Julie’s story is riddled with the same injustices seen in many other cases of wrongful conviction. The biggest issue in her case and the most prominent issue in almost all wrongful conviction cases is witness misidentification. Inaccurate eyewitness testimonies have contributed to 69% of wrongful convictions. These testimonies are usually identified early in the investigation making them vague in the broader context of the completed investigation. Although commonly used, there are many issues with this practice: 

  • The administrator may know the suspect in the lineup which can indirectly help the witness identify the wrong person. 
  • The administrator does not state that no one in the lineup is the suspect, which leads the witness to randomly pick someone in hopes that their guess is correct. 
  • Sometimes the lineup may have fillers– people who don’t look like the witness’s testimony– to make the suspect stand out more. 
  • The administrator also may not have the witness articulate their confidence in their answer, or they may accidentally boost the witness’s confidence resulting in an incorrect answer.

The simplest way to prevent incidents like false eyewitness testimonies is to conduct a double-blind lineup so that neither the administrator nor the witness knows if the suspect is in the lineup or not. Also, the lineup should be composed carefully without fillers, and witnesses should make clear and confident statements documented by investigators. 

Julie’s case was solved by The Illinois Innocence Project, which is a team of students and staff at UIUC dedicated to freeing wrongfully imprisoned people. The Illinois chapter of The Innocence Project teaches the undergraduate “Conviction of the Innocent” course at the University of Illinois-Springfield. They also oversee an externship program for the University of Illinois School of Law students and train the University of Illinois Police Training Institute cadets about avoiding wrongful convictions. The Illinois Innocence Project has had many successes in criminal justice reform:

1- Passed reform banning police from lying to children during interrogations to prevent deception and false confessions. 

2- Overrode previous legislation allowing unfair use of jailhouse informants. New legislation requires judges to hold pre-trail reliability hearings before jailhouse informant witness testimony for murder, sexual assault, and arson cases. It also requires prosecutors to disclose key evidence regarding the jailhouse informant to the defense. 

3- Secured state compensation owed to Illinois exonerees.

4- Enacted legislation mandating accurate and just eyewitness identification practices. 

The IIS continues to fight for wrongfully jailed people in Illinois, but despite their efforts, many procedures within the justice system have made it hard for them to bypass certain roadblocks to obtaining evidence, visiting clients in prison, conducting DNA testing, and many other expensive investigation methods. Both legal and fiscal issues have set back the IIS’s teams from assisting their clients to their best efforts. To help The Innocence Project in their efforts, consider sharing the information on their websites and donating to the chapter’s legal teams.