innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Julie Rea-Harper Cases Raises Questions

Published Tuesday, August 01, 2006

CARLYLE - An Illinois lawmaker says the acquittal of an indigent woman retried on charges that she fatally stabbed her son in 1997 illustrates why the state's special fund for death-penalty defendants should be expanded to include other murder defendants like her.
The Julie Rea-Harper "case bothers me. It raises questions," said Rep. Paul Froelich, R-Schaumburg. "The prosecutor can say, 'OK, I'm not going to seek death,' and you shut off that assistance."

Opponents of expanding the state's Capital Litigation Trust Fund say it could be too costly to the state, divert resources from other parts of the criminal justice system and generate fraud.
Set up in the fallout of 1990s revelations that Illinois had sent more than a dozen wrongfully convicted people to death row, the fund assures death penalty defendants the right to two private attorneys with capital-murder trial experience, with the state paying them up to $140 an hour and covering other defense expenses.

The state allocates about $4.5 million a year for the program, which has funded about 200 cases since it started in January 2000 but has provided nothing in the hundreds of non-death penalty murder trials in Illinois every year.

Harper, 37, was represented in her first trial in 2002 by a public defender who, her backers say, wasn't experienced enough. Jurors convicted her, and she served two years of a 65-year sentence before she won a new trial in 2004.

Jurors in the Clinton County community of Carlyle, about 70 miles east of St. Louis, acquitted her last week. She was represented free of charge in the retrial by a legal team including Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions and prominent Chicago attorney Ron Safer.

By Safer's estimates, Harper's defense on charges that she killed 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick - her only child - at her one-time Lawrence County home would have cost upward of $1 million to a paying client.

"What happens if we don't devote half a million to a million dollars in free legal services?" Safer asked. He said expanding the trust fund would "even the scales of justice" in murder cases.
When Harper first was charged in 2000 with her son's death, prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty. Illinois' death-penalty reforms of the late 1990s included state-funded resources available for defendants who might face execution, providing them with experienced lawyers, private investigators and other aid, but none of that was available for Harper or others who potentially faced life in prison.

"When they took the death penalty off the table, that meant losing the resources that normally are at the disposal" of capital murder defendants, putting Rea-Harper "at a tremendous disadvantage" in her first trial, said Larry Golden of the Downstate Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "For us, this case is first of all about Julie, but (also) the larger problems of the criminal justice system."

But arguing that expanding the trust fund "will benefit a few high-powered lawyers," Democratic state Sen. William Haine of Alton - a former Madison County state's attorney - said the first step should be to help counties boost salaries of prosecutors and public defenders.

In its current, limited form, Haine said, the trust fund is vulnerable to abuse. The State Journal-Register in March 2004 cited as an example a Minnesota lawyer who, in defending convicted child-killer Cecil Sutherland of Mount Vernon in 2004, tapped the fund for more than $2 million, including $900,000 for his own fee.

Ed Parkinson, special prosecutor in both of Harper's trials, said last week that expanding protections of the trust fund "would be a good idea," noting that "it does seem kind of unfair that if the prosecutor doesn't seek death, the defendant doesn't get those resources."


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