Saturday, October 13, 2012
“He slid toward the kitchen—such a wonderful place for a predator; always a weapon in easy reach. He picked up a knife and weighed its balance in his hand. He headed straight for the first bedroom door. There, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick dreamed his last dream.”
Fifteen years ago today, Joel Kirkpatrick lost his life in a brutal, senseless act of violence. Joel was a sensitive, smart, creative boy with a strong moral compass who wanted to be a professional electronic game tester when he grew up. He astonished teachers with his intellect and kindness. He was loved by family, friends and almost anyone who spent some time with him. He had limitless potential.
It was all stolen from him when a predator broke into his home in the middle of the night and stabbed him to death. No matter how your child dies from illness, accident, suicide or homicide, every mother is stunned, devastated and distraught.
For Joel’s mother, Julie Rea, however, the living nightmare grew to even greater proportions when she learned she would not be allowed to grief in peace. From the time she left the emergency room after being treated for injuries that could not have been self-inflicted, she discovered that she was the suspect in the death of her son.
That conclusion was reached by a combination of factors including reports of strangers that were not thoroughly investigated, shoddy crime scene techniques, a bitter ex-husband who insisted she was guilty and a prosecutor whose ambition blinded him to his mission to seek truth and find justice. Three years after Joel’s murder, Julie was charged with the crime.
In the first trial, her court-appointed attorney was clearly outmatched in experience with criminal court proceedings. By his own admission, he was in over his head. Julie was convicted and sentenced to 65 years in jail.
As a mother, I can barely imagine the pain of knowing my child was murdered. There is no way I can accurately conjure up the anguish this additional blow of being found guilty of that crime and locked behind bars. I cannot not think of any fate more horrendous for any mother.
Compound that injustice with the fact that Joel’s killer was still free, roaming the countryside, selecting new victims at will. Two years later, Tommy Lynn Sells was convicted of a murder in Del Rio, Texas and placed on Death Row.
About a year after he received his sentence, I first met Tommy Lynn Sells. Inspired by his last surviving victim, ten-year-old Krystal Surles, I interviewed him for my book, Through the Window. In the course of more than twenty interviews and countless letters, he confessed to me that he had murdered Joel Kirkpatrick.
My reporting of that confession in the book was used by the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project to gather corroborating evidence that ultimately led to the involvement of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Julie's wrongful conviction was overturned and she got a new trial.
I provided an affidavit for that proceeding. The prosecutors stipulated their acceptance of it and it was presented to the jury. Julie was acquitted. Then, after she went through an arduous process, she received vindication: a Certificate of Actual Innocence from the State of Illinois.
Still the prosecution would not reopen the case and seek justice for Joel Kirkpatrick.
Saddest of all, Julie still cannot wrap her arms around her wonderful son. She can’t tell him she loves him except in a prayer. She can't rejoice in the many milestones that he would have achieved in his life if he was still with her as a young man of 25.
No amount of justice can ever bring back Joel Kirkpatrick. And the world is a sadder place because he’s not in it.