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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Trials Matter . . . Julie Rea and the Long Path to Exoneration

This afternoon, Julie Rea spoke to a packed courtroom at the Southern Illinois University School of Law, telling the story of her wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration for the 1997 murder of her 10-year-old son, Joel.  An intruder broke into her home and stabbed Joel to death.  Julie fought with the intruder, who fled the home.  She was convicted of the murder by a jury in 2002.  Shortly after her conviction, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer on death row in Texas, confessed to murdering Joel.  He confessed multiple times in the next few years, and his confession was corroborated by investigators working with the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.   Investigators also brought to light evidence of police perjury in Julie's original case. An appellate court in Illinois vacated her conviction in 2004, but prosecutors immediately re-arrested her for the crime and brought her to trial a second time.  With the help of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Julie was acquitted in 2006 at a second trial.  She subsequently received a certificate of innocence from the State of Illinois.  You can read more about this case by accessing the now-renamed Illinois Innocence Project's website. A link to Julie's page on that website is here.

One of the central tenets of her message is that what happens at trial, from jury selection all the way through to closing arguments, makes a tremendous difference.  In her first trial, an outgunned public defender represented her, alone, against two special prosecutors brought in solely for her case.  Her attorney persuaded her not to testify--in her words, would not let her testify despite her frequent pleas to do so.  Investigative misconduct, policy perjury and evidentiary error all occurred, unremedied, at the first trial.  Her attorney lost every phase of the trial.  Interviews with jurors after the trial revealed that they did not understand the burden of proof, their role at trial, or the role of the defense in a criminal trial; jurors commented that they were just waiting for her attorney to pull a rabbit out of a hat, or for her to look them in the eye and tell them she didn't do it. Julie said she knew as soon as jury selection began that she was in trouble. 

The second trial was a complete contrast to the first. This time, with legal resources at hand and zealous, tenacious counsel, she won at every phase of trial. The jurors not only found her not guilty, but they affirmatively proclaimed her innocence and condemned the prosecutors and police who brought the case against her in the first place.  

Ironically, to date county officials have not seen fit to bring charges against Tommy Lynn Sells for Joel's murder.

Julie's case, and many others like it, teach a powerful lesson about the importance of zealous, competent, prepared advocates who have the resources to do their jobs properly. I share it with you because it highlights, in stark and tragic detail, the central reason for training advocates in an adversarial system: trials matter, and in an adversarial trial, the skill and zeal of advocates can literally mean the difference between life and death.

I think it's important to keep these stories in mind as we go about our work of teaching advocates. In reality, we aren't just teaching them how to lay the foundation for a piece of evidence, to perform a scripted show at a trial competition, or to earn an A in an advocacy class.  We're teaching them the skills and ethical foundation they need to make our justice system function.


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