Politics

Bloodstain Evaluation Satisfied a Jury She Stabbed Her 10-Yr-Outdated Son. Now, Even Freedom Can’t Give Her Again Her Life.

Julie Rea
(Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Instances)

This text is a partnership between ProPublica, the place Pamela Colloff is a senior reporter, and The New York Instances Journal, the place she is a author at giant.

“I tucked Joel in, however I really feel so responsible I didn’t maintain him longer,” Julie Rea stated, her voice welling with emotion. That’s all she will be able to muster in regards to the worst night time of her life. As she tries to say extra, she breaks down.

The story stays, nonetheless, virtually unspeakable. Within the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 1997, Rea was jolted awake by a scream. She found an intruder, however noticed no signal of her son, in her Lawrenceville, Illinois, house. She advised police that she struggled with the person, who fled. Then ran for assist. Nevertheless it was too late. Her son, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, had been stabbed to dying.

On the time of the homicide, Rea was a single mom working towards a doctorate in instructional psychology. She had divorced Joel’s father three years earlier and was main a quiet, uneventful life within the wake of a turbulent marriage. The mild-mannered daughter of missionaries, Rea had devoted herself to her vibrant, inquisitive son.

However in 2000, after a protracted and deeply flawed investigation, Rea was charged with killing Joel.

“Surviving your youngster’s homicide, solely to seek out out that you just’re being accused of murdering your youngster, is a sort of trauma that I wouldn’t want on any dwelling being,” stated Rea, now 50. “I wouldn’t want it on a snake.”

Prosecutors used a forensic self-discipline referred to as bloodstain-pattern evaluation to argue that an intruder by no means entered her house on the night time of the crime and that Rea was, the truth is, her son’s killer. She was convicted of first-degree homicide in 2002 largely on the energy of the testimony of two bloodstain-pattern analysts.

4 years later, Rea was acquitted at a retrial, after a authorized group assembled by the Heart on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern College’s Pritzker Faculty of Regulation in Chicago mounted a vigorous protection that challenged the state’s forensic testimony. In addition they offered new proof {that a} serial killer of kids — a lifelong drifter who was on Texas dying row for a virtually an identical crime — had confessed to killing Joel. Rea was formally exonerated in 2010.

In the present day, she belongs to a rising group of victims: People who had been wrongly convicted with the assistance of forensic disciplines allowed into courtrooms regardless of little to no proof of their reliability. Of the 362 individuals who have been exonerated primarily based on DNA checks in the USA, defective forensics contributed to virtually half of the underlying convictions.

Like Rea, these exonerees have had years of their lives stolen, and plenty of have struggled to seek out their place on this planet after surviving the crucible of incarceration.

A yr earlier than Rea’s exoneration, the Nationwide Academy of Sciences had launched a report that referred to as into doubt the reliability of bloodstain-pattern evaluation. Practitioners’ conclusions had been typically “extra subjective than scientific” and open to “context bias,” the 2009 report stated.

“Some consultants extrapolate far past what will be supported,” it stated. And it cautioned, “The uncertainties related to bloodstain-pattern evaluation are monumental.”

The report criticized a variety of forensic disciplines, together with the evaluation of hairs, fibers, chew marks and shoe and tire impressions. Its authors discovered that many of those disciplines weren’t grounded in arduous information and in depth, peer-reviewed analysis, however as a substitute relied on practitioners’ private interpretations. “The regulation’s biggest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic proof,” it said, “considerations the query of whether or not — and to what extent — there’s science in any given forensic science self-discipline.”

The report referred to as for sweeping reform. But almost a decade later, little has modified. Within the area of bloodstain-pattern evaluation, rigorous analysis which may decide the accuracy of analysts’ findings is scant. Chunk-mark evaluation — which, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Expertise declared had no scientific validity — remains to be admitted in legal prosecutions. So, too, is microscopic hair comparability, an outmoded and dangerously flawed method that has, to this point, led to the convictions of 75 individuals who had been later exonerated by DNA testing.

“Forensic science ought to be handled like some other shopper product,” stated M. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation on the Innocence Challenge in New York Metropolis. “Earlier than it’s allowed for use on human beings, it ought to be scientifically examined and clinically demonstrated to be dependable, similar to toothpaste.” However so long as courts proceed to confess forensic proof proffered by prosecutors, and prosecutors proceed to win convictions utilizing it, he added, “There isn’t any incentive to alter.”

Julie at house with Joel round 1992.
(Courtesy of Julie Rea)

Unhealthy science additionally impacts defendants whose circumstances by no means go to trial. About 95 % of legal circumstances are resolved with plea bargains, and in such circumstances, forensic work typically goes unchallenged. “The mere risk of scientific proof being utilized in courtroom is usually ample to induce a plea,” Fabricant stated.

Final yr, then-Lawyer Common Jeff Periods dashed hopes for reform when he disbanded the Nationwide Fee on Forensic Science, an Obama-era advisory panel that sought the enter of analysis scientists in bettering the requirements and soundness of forensic evaluation and testimony.

In the meantime, defendants convicted on the energy of doubtful forensic testimony languish in jail, whereas those that have received their freedom, like Rea, attempt to put their lives again collectively. The $87,057 in compensation she acquired from the state of Illinois has confirmed to be chilly consolation. Scuffling with PTSD and reeling from abuse she endured behind bars, she continues to undergo in methods each unbearably public and excruciatingly personal.

Being branded a toddler killer “separated me from society,” Rea stated. “I’ll all the time have a scarlet letter. Nothing will ever make that go away.”


On the morning of Oct. 13, 1997, a neighbor, Lesa Bridgett, awoke round 4:30 to the sound of Rea pounding on her entrance door. Rea was standing outdoors, barefoot, clad solely in a T-shirt and underwear. She appeared frantic, and she or he was talking so quickly that she was arduous to know. Hoping to calm her, Bridgett pulled the 28-year-old right into a bear hug. “Joel’s gone,” Rea shrieked.

Courtroom data present she advised police she’d run into Joel’s room after listening to a scream and noticed solely his empty mattress. A person in a ski masks lunged at her, and Rea — who had a black belt in taekwondo — struggled with him, chasing him by way of the home and into the yard. He slammed her head to the bottom earlier than making his escape. Hysterical, she advised Bridgett she thought Joel had been kidnapped.

However when Lawrence County Deputy Sheriff Dennis York arrived and searched Rea’s house, he discovered Joel. The fifth-grader lay on his bed room flooring, between his empty mattress and the close by wall. His pajamas had been drenched in blood. He had been stabbed 12 occasions, twice by way of his aorta.

When Rea was advised that her son was useless, she erupted into screams.

She was taken to the hospital with a black eye, rug burns on her knees, a wound on her proper arm that required stitches, and scratches and abrasions on her head, each shoulders and the tops of her ft. In her fragile mind-set, she didn’t grasp that investigators had been already eyeing her as a suspect. That they had not been capable of finding any apparent indicators of compelled entry into the house; Rea couldn’t keep in mind locking the again door however advised police it was secure to imagine she had.

Rea hardly match the profile of a lady who would drive a knife into her youngster’s coronary heart. She had no historical past of psychological sickness and no legal document, nor did her conduct within the hours main as much as his homicide counsel something was amiss. She and Joel had spent an unremarkable night at house along with her finest pal, Trena Woodward, and Woodward’s kids. The 2 ladies had spent the night scrapbooking.

Rea’s household footage of her son Joel.
(Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Instances)

A plodding investigation adopted, with few leads. The homicide weapon — a steak knife pulled from a butcher block in Rea’s kitchen — didn’t yield any fingerprints. Investigators had little to go on, having did not do primary police work which may have pinpointed the id of an intruder. They by no means dusted Joel’s bed room, or the butcher block that the knife was pulled from, for fingerprints and didn’t protect crucial hint proof on Joel’s bedspread.

As an alternative, they targeted on Rea. In search of any remnants of blood that she might need tried to clean away, investigators dug up her septic tank, inspected her sink and bathe drains, and examined the garments in her washer. They sprayed luminol, a chemical that detects the presence of blood, round her home. They discovered nothing.

Nor might they discover any discernable motive. Rea, who shared custody of Joel along with her ex-husband, Leonard Kirkpatrick, had fought for extra time with their son. Kirkpatrick had been awarded bodily custody of the boy after he remarried — a call Rea had fiercely protested, submitting her newest enchantment two weeks earlier than her son’s dying.

Within the wake of the homicide, she couldn’t bear to be alone. Fearful of the darkish, she hardly ever slept. She stayed in an residence an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, in Bloomington, Indiana, the place she had been commuting to Indiana College’s Ph.D. program. There, a rotation of associates stayed along with her across the clock. “To go to sleep, I needed to have somebody on both aspect of me and the lights on,” she stated.

She obtained a German shepherd that she took along with her almost in every single place. She managed to carry down a instructing place on the college however was stricken by panic assaults and debilitating nervousness. A number of occasions, investigators confirmed as much as her house and office unannounced.

The investigation sputtered alongside till 2000, when the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Workplace, which routinely handles advanced prosecutions for rural counties, took the case to a grand jury. On the eve of the third anniversary of Joel’s homicide, Rea was indicted.

Prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, little forensic proof and no motive. They’d depend on a forensic self-discipline that had helped win circumstantial circumstances earlier than: bloodstain-pattern evaluation.

Bloodstain-pattern evaluation is rooted within the perception that the drops, spatters and trails of blood at a criminal offense scene are wealthy repositories of knowledge that can be utilized to reverse engineer and even reconstruct crimes. Many practitioners are regulation enforcement officers, not scientists. However their knowledgeable testimony typically lends a way of scientific certainty to circumstantial circumstances, and it may be a strong instrument within the arms of prosecutors.

“An knowledgeable who says, ‘That is what the bodily proof exhibits,’ is extraordinarily persuasive, particularly in a circumstantial case,” stated Judy Royal, a employees legal professional with the Heart on Wrongful Convictions who started engaged on Rea’s case in 2003. “Jurors don’t perceive when an knowledgeable is overstating findings or going past what will be examined and replicated.”

This reality has been laid naked in circumstances across the nation through which bloodstain-pattern evaluation has figured prominently — most not too long ago that of Joe Bryan, a former highschool principal who was convicted of the 1985 homicide of his spouse in Clifton, Texas. Bryan was the topic of a two-part investigation by ProPublica and The New York Instances Journal this spring that questioned the accuracy of the bloodstain-pattern evaluation used to convict him. The Texas Forensic Science Fee, a nationwide chief in legal justice reform, present in July that the conclusions of the prosecution’s bloodstain-pattern knowledgeable, Robert Thorman, had been “not correct or scientifically supported.” In September, Thorman conceded in an affidavit that a few of his conclusions had been unsuitable. Bryan, whose attorneys have requested that his conviction be overturned and whose case is earlier than Texas’ highest legal courtroom, has spent 31 years in jail. A choose not too long ago really useful that Bryan’s conviction stand, discovering that “Thorman’s testimony was not necessary to the case.”

Bryan’s and Rea’s circumstances should not the one ones through which a bloodstain-pattern analyst has delivered testimony that was later referred to as into query. From Oregon to Texas, from North Carolina to New York, convictions that hinged on the testimony of a bloodstain-pattern analyst have been overturned and the defendants acquitted, or the costs dropped. As not too long ago as this February, a choose vacated the conviction of a Missouri man named Brad Jennings for the 2006 homicide of his spouse, Lisa, after proof emerged that supported his declare that his spouse dedicated suicide. Jennings was launched from jail after eight years behind bars.

Bloodstain-pattern evaluation’s shortcomings had been most clearly on show within the case of an Indiana state trooper named David Camm, who discovered his spouse and two kids shot to dying of their house in 2000 and was rapidly charged with their murders. Over the course of three trials, prosecutors offered a succession of bloodstain-pattern analysts who testified that eight specks of blood discovered on the T-shirt Camm wore on the night time of the crime had been “high-velocity impression spatter” from the taking pictures. The protection produced its personal bloodstain consultants, who argued that the specks in query had been really “switch stains” — blood that blotted Camm’s T-shirt as he tried to render assist.

Camm was acquitted in 2013 after spending 13 years behind bars. One other man, a burglar with a protracted rap sheet whose DNA was discovered on the crime scene, was convicted of the murders and stays in jail.

The retired biochemist and forensic scientist Robert Shaler, one of many authors of the 2009 Nationwide Academy of Sciences report and the founding director of Pennsylvania State College’s Forensic Science Program, testified for the protection within the Camm case that consultants on each sides had been incorrect; specks of blood, he argued, was too little info from which to attract any significant conclusion. “The consultants couldn’t even agree on the kind of sample they had been taking a look at,” he stated in an interview.

Camm’s lead legal professional at his third trial, Richard Kammen, was much more blunt. “Individuals see what they need to see,” he stated of bloodstain-pattern evaluation. “It’s as correct as a Ouija board.”


The Solar-Business in Indiana on October 13, 2000.

When Rea stood trial for her son’s homicide in February 2002, bloodstain-pattern evaluation took middle stage. Like Camm’s case, Rea’s case hinged on a minuscule quantity of blood that stained her T-shirt on the night time of the slaying. Practically all of it was her blood, which had seeped from the wound on her arm. However a tiny smear on her shirt’s proper shoulder was discovered to be Joel’s blood. DNA testing of two different small bloodstains on her shirt established a attainable, although not definitive, hyperlink to Joel. The protection would argue that Joel’s blood had doubtless transferred onto Rea’s shirt when she scuffled with the bloodied intruder.

The prosecution referred to as two bloodstain-pattern analysts who asserted that there had been no intruder. The primary was Rod Englert, a retired police detective and previous president of the Worldwide Affiliation of Bloodstain Sample Analysts. He started by performing a prolonged demonstration utilizing theatrical blood to indicate the jury how totally different sorts of blood spatter are created. Holding forth with out interruption, he launched the forensic self-discipline’s primary rules and lexicon. Bloodstain-pattern evaluation, he defined, allowed investigators “to place the items of the puzzle collectively.”

It was with this imprimatur of legitimacy that Englert delivered his findings. He concluded that the crime scene had been “staged and manipulated” and was “not constant along with her story of a battle.” His knowledgeable opinion was primarily based on each his examination of the proof, he stated, and his “expertise of getting gone to many, many scenes, many like this, lots of of scenes.” He noticed “no indication that there was a 3rd get together on this residence,” he added.

The duty of decoding the bloodstains on Rea’s T-shirt was left as much as Dexter Bartlett, a criminal offense scene investigator with the Illinois State Police. Bartlett advised the jury that Joel’s blood couldn’t have transferred onto her shirt and was extra constant along with her wielding a weapon. Bartlett supplied no proof of this — no experiments he had performed, no information and no rationalization of the methodology he used to return to his conclusions.

The protection referred to as its personal bloodstain-pattern analyst, a forensic marketing consultant named Paul Kish, who testified that his microscopic examination of the T-shirt led him to consider Joel’s blood had transferred onto it. The blood rested on high of the fibers, he advised jurors; it had not penetrated the weave of the material, as blood forged off of a weapon could be anticipated to do.

Who was proper and who was unsuitable was left to jurors to type out. Rea’s public defender, Brad Vaughn, implored them to keep in mind that not one of the claims made by the state’s bloodstain-pattern analysts may very well be verified; that they had not performed any experiments to check their conclusions. “That’s not scientific,” Vaughn advised the jury. “Science is about establishing: ‘That is scientific and true as a result of I can recreate it. I can duplicate it. I do know inside a variety that this may be carried out this fashion.’ There was no try to try this.”

The opposite prosecution technique was to forged Rea – who family and friends described as a caring, attentive guardian – as a nasty mom. Her ex-husband testified that she had thought-about having an abortion when she found, on the age of 17, that she was pregnant with Joel. Neighbors described her behaving erratically, even coldly, within the speedy aftermath of the crime – with one neighbor telling the jury that Rea, although initially hysterical, by no means cried. These claims went largely unchallenged as a result of Rea’s legal professional didn’t put her on the stand.

In the long run, the jury discovered Rea responsible. She was sentenced to 65 years in jail.

Then in 2004, there was a sensational growth within the case: Serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells advised Illinois investigators that he had damaged right into a home in 1997, stabbed a boy to dying utilizing a knife he pulled from a butcher block within the kitchen and sparred with a lady each inside and outdoors the home. Sells was going through execution in Texas for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old woman after breaking into her household’s house, and he had been linked to a number of different murders of kids across the nation. That very same yr, an Illinois appellate courtroom overturned Rea’s conviction due to a authorized error and ordered a brand new trial.

The Herald & Overview in Illinois from July 10, 2006.

At her 2006 retrial, prosecutors doubled down on bloodstain-pattern evaluation once they as soon as once more put Englert on the stand. However this time, Englert — who had delivered among the state’s most damning testimony within the Camm case — targeted on a concept he had by no means talked about at Rea’s first trial. In analyzing her T-shirt, he stated, he had seen proof that “a bloody hand pushed up” towards it. The supply of the blood, he stated, might solely have been “Joel’s bloodied arms.” His testimony suggesting a horrifying state of affairs: that Joel had tried to push his mom away as she plunged a knife into him. Englert admitted beneath cross-examination that he had by no means requested measurements of Joel’s arms for comparability.

Englert, who stands by his testimony, stated not too long ago that any variations in his testimony between trials was doubtless the results of variations within the prosecutor’s questions.

Testifying for the protection, forensic marketing consultant Kenneth Moses challenged whether or not Englert had used the scientific methodology to reach at his conclusion. “I’ve seen nothing to point that this space was studied for that function, and information collected, comparisons made, and a few type of a conclusion or speculation drawn,” Moses stated, referring to the T-shirt. “There isn’t any scientific foundation for making such a declare.”

The protection went on to argue that Rea’s accidents on the night time of the homicide couldn’t have been self-inflicted, and that investigators had missed clues that pointed to an intruder. In addition they performed the audio of Sells’ confession for the jury. The lifelong drifter had confessed to quite a few different crimes, and a few of his accounts strained credulity. However the protection bolstered its case by introducing proof suggesting that Sells had been close to Lawrenceville, Illinois, across the time of Joel’s homicide. Most powerfully, Rea took the stand to inform her story, insisting that she had “completely not” killed her son.

When the jury returned a not responsible verdict on July 26, 2006, Rea set free a primal cry. Her knees buckled beneath her as she fell to the ground.


“I believed the whole lot could be higher,” Rea stated. “I believed I would go to regulation faculty, or end my doctoral diploma. I believed I’d be robust and in a position to assist different folks and provides again to my household and associates who had given a lot to me. I simply had no thought what it might be like.”

As an alternative, on the time of her acquittal, Rea was nonetheless reeling — not solely from her son’s violent dying and two legal prosecutions, however from the trauma of incarceration. She is reluctant to debate the bodily and emotional abuse she endured in the course of the almost 4 years she spent behind bars besides to say that she was reviled by each inmates and guards. “What I had supposedly carried out was thought-about to be the one unforgivable sin,” she stated.

Regardless of her acquittal, she quickly found that she needed to preserve dwelling beneath the burden of suspicion. Prosecutors within the case nonetheless spoke of her like a legal. Edwin Parkinson, the lead prosecutor in her case, advised reporters, “The jury discovered her not responsible; they didn’t discover her harmless.” Parkinson didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Regardless of intensive remedy, her religion and a service canine to assist ease the consequences of her PTSD, Rea struggled. Marriage to a person she wed shortly earlier than her first trial, who believed so fervently in her innocence that he went to regulation faculty to assist in her protection, unraveled within the years that adopted her acquittal.

She additionally had bother discovering a job. Figuring out her earlier conviction would floor a technique or one other, she was up entrance with potential employers. “After the individual interviewing me picked their jaw up off the ground,” she stated, “the job could be supplied to another person.”

Although she was formally exonerated in 2010, when an Illinois circuit courtroom granted her a certificates of innocence, she had problem discovering work.

In 2011, Rea moved to Tennessee, the place her dad and mom reside, hoping for a contemporary begin. She tried a lot of ventures, together with opening a bed-and-breakfast, however none got here to fruition. She is at present unemployed and apprehensive in regards to the future. “I’ve no earnings proper now,” she stated. “I don’t know what to do.”

She is painfully conscious that what occurred to her — and to Camm, Jennings and others wrongly convicted on the energy of bloodstain-pattern evaluation — modified nothing. Prosecutors proceed to make use of bloodstain-pattern evaluation in even essentially the most circumstantial of circumstances, and judges preserve permitting it into the courtroom, largely unexamined.

A card and Joel’s self portrait drawing at Julie’s house.
(Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Instances)

A working group of forensic scientists and bloodstain-pattern practitioners, which is overseen by the Nationwide Institute of Requirements and Expertise, has not too long ago referred to as for stronger requirements and drafted new tips for bloodstain-pattern analysts.

However essentially the most vital reform efforts which might be at present underway have been caused by the Texas Forensic Science Fee, whose selections typically immediate different states to observe swimsuit. The fee has decided that bloodstain-pattern evaluation that’s used to reconstruct a criminal offense should be carried out by a corporation or particular person who’s accredited — not anybody who’s a self-styled knowledgeable — whether it is to be allowed in a Texas courtroom. The group additionally has plans to teach the state’s legal courtroom judges by making a useful resource they will seek the advice of that may describe every forensic self-discipline’s requirements and limitations, in addition to potential pink flags.

“When judges let the whole lot in as a result of they don’t have the instruments to do higher, we’re in a scenario the place the one factor stopping overstated testimony is the analyst’s personal potential to train self-restraint,” stated Lynn Garcia, the fee’s basic counsel. “When life, liberty and justice for the sufferer is at stake, that’s nothing in need of terrifying.”

For Rea, any reform will come too late. “Joel nonetheless wants justice,” she stated. “He’s by no means seen a day of it. My acquittal simply obtained us again to stage floor.” She deplores the truth that Sells, who she believes killed Joel, won’t ever be charged along with his homicide. Sells was executed in 2014.

Over and over, Rea has wished that she had awoken sooner on the night time Joel was murdered. Then she might have saved her son, she believes, or died making an attempt.




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