Mother wrongfully convicted of son's murder shares her story with students


Kendall Downing

CARBONDALE, Ill. - It sounds more like something out of Hollywood than real life. A mother loses her ten-year-old son, then is wrongly convicted of his murder and has to fight to clear her name.

But that really happened to Julie Rea, and Thursday she shared her amazing and terrifying story with law students at SIU-Carbondale.

In 1997, Rea's 10-year-old son Joel was stabbed to death during a brutal home invasion in Lawrenceville, Illinois.

Julie Rea was charged with capital murder in 2000. In 2002, she was convicted in Wayne County, Illinois and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

But then in 2003, a known serial killer, Tommy Lynn Sells, confessed to the crime. By 2004, an appellate court vacated her conviction, but she was re-arrested.

Finally in 2006 after another trial, a jury acquitted her of her son's murder.

Those with the Illinois Innocence Project said Julie Rea is not alone. There are others in prison for crimes they didn't commit. That's why they believe educating the lawyers of tomorrow is important.

"I don't feel him far away. I feel him close," said Julie Rea.

Rea knew she didn't kill her 10-year-old son Joel.

"The innocence projects got it out there," she said.

And she'd still be behind bars if the Illinois Innocence Project hasn't gotten involved. Thursday they shared Julie's story of wrongful conviction with a room full of students.

"We get requests every year. It's increasing. It's tripled since we became a statewide organization," said Erica Cook, a staff attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project.

Cook said there's a push in Illinois to re-examine old cases, where faulty evidence put people like Julie Rea in jail.

"It's very fascinating," said Mitchell Martin, a third-year law student.

For students like Martin, Rea's story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when investigators and prosecutors drop the ball.

"It should be about doing it right and making sure that we do seek justice," he said.

But what's a textbook lesson for him and other students is a reality for Julie Rea, still living with the memories of her son, Joel.

"I mean, he's still there," she said.

Rea received a Certificate of Innocence from the state of Illinois, which gives her the ability to speak freely about her experience.

She's now starting to share her story with groups across the state.