Julie Rea is a free woman today after she spent seven years in prison, wrongfully convicted in the murder of her 10-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick. The real killer was Tommy Lynn Sells, who would go on to face execution in the murder of 13-year-old Kaylene Harris in 1999 in Texas. Rea was granted a new trial in 2006 and officially exonerated in 2010.
Sells was convicted in the murder of Harris, but also confessed to a string of murders that spanned the country and three decades, according to the Clark County Prosecutor. He called himself “Coast to Coast,” an allusion to his migratory lifestyle in which he hopped trains, panhandled, stole vehicles and left behind a trail of bodies, the prosecutor’s office said.
ABC 20/20 is examining some of Sells’ cases on its new episode tonight, Friday, November 12, 2021. 20/20 will also air an interview with Fabienne Witherspoon, who survived an attack by Sells.
“I always felt if something like that ever happened to me, I would probably just faint. I would just- I would faint and die. I would not fight, but I found out that I was somebody different,” Witherspoon told 20/20.
Here’s what you need to know:
Rea Went on to Become an Advocate for the Wrongfully Convicted After Her Exoneration
Rea was a PhD student and mother to Kirkpatrick when the boy was murdered October 13, 1997, according to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
“Julie gave a consistent and detailed description of the intruder who broke into her home, killed her son, and tried to kill her, yet the investigation focused solely on Rea,” the report said.
She was indicted three years later and a jury found her guilty. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison. Northwestern University reported there was no motive established and no physical evidence presented at trial.
“During her trial, prosecutors presented several pieces of gender-biased emotional, prejudicial, and irrelevant evidence, including testimony by her ex-husband that she had contemplated aborting her pregnancy with Joel. (The testimony not only was prejudicial, it also was false,” Northwestern University reported. “Julie’s obstetrician testified that she had confined herself to bed around the clock during the final weeks of the pregnancy to reduce the risk of a spontaneous abortion.)”
Following her release from prison, Rea became an advocate for women who say they were wrongfully convicted, according to ABC News.
Rea Was Granted a New Trial After Sells Confessed to Joel’s Murder in 2004
In 2004, Sells confessed to killing the little boy, telling police he broke into the house, took a knife from a butcher block, fought with a woman and stabbed the boy, according to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Although it was not related to Sells’ confession, Rea was granted a new trial in which the new jury heard Sells’ confession and learned about forensic evidence corroborating Rea’s account.
“The jury found the defense evidence persuasive and returned a verdict of not guilty on July 26, 2006. On December 1, 2010, the Circuit Court of Lawrence County awarded her a certificate of innocence,” Northwestern University reported.
Rea first told her story to ABC 20/20 in 2002, which drew a spotlight to her case.
“The last person in the world I would hurt is my son,” Rea said in the 2002 interview with 20/20. “My son knows I would have never hurt him.”