A mother has relived the grisly details of her daughter’s murder through a weeks-long trial and numerous appeals, but the next hearing could be the most frustrating yet.
Connie Sutton has heard a recount of the abduction and murder of her daughter Kelly Eckart over and over again for 17 years. But now, the attorneys are talking only about the man who was convicted of murdering her daughter and was sentenced to die for it — Michael Dean Overstreet.
Overstreet’s attorneys are arguing that he suffers from schizophrenia and is so delusional that he can’t comprehend what his death sentence means. In order for the state to execute people, they must understand not only what they’ve been sentenced for but what that punishment means. Doctors will testify that he’s mentally ill and a victim of delusions and hallucinations that have completely warped reality for him.
Sutton doesn’t believe it.
Overstreet knew what he was doing when he targeted Eckart for this vicious crime, when he bumped her car at a Franklin intersection late at night, snatched her from the side of the road and dumped her corpse in the woods so no one would find her, Sutton said. He knew what he had done as he read every story in the newspapers and flipped on the TV news to see if anyone was talking about Kelly, she said.
The courts rejected all the appeals about his conviction and sentence, and an execution date is looming over him. If trying to pass him off as too mentally ill to be put to death is the only shot his attorneys have left, she’s not surprised they’re trying it, she said.
But she is scared that they could succeed. Now doctors will try to build sympathy for Overstreet, to cast him as a victim of mental illness, which could make this the emotionally stressful and frustrating step in the process.
“He’s going in there as a convicted murderer. But that’s a lot of what we’re going to be hearing, ‘Oh, poor him. Poor him,’” Sutton said. She stops, groans and shakes her head.
“I can’t even, I don’t even want to go there.”
In September 1997, Kelly was 18 years old. She had graduated in the top 10 of her high school class earlier that summer. She was excited every day about her freshman year at Franklin College. She wanted to be an accountant. She loved Mickey Mouse, was in the color guard, got along well with her brother and had a boyfriend.
On Sutton’s way out the door for work on Friday, Sept. 26, she poked her head in the bathroom to say goodbye to Kelly, who was in the shower. That brief goodbye was the last time Sutton saw her daughter.
When Kelly finished her shift at 10 p.m., she shopped with her boyfriend and his mom and then headed home. Kelly and her boyfriend left in separate cars. They both headed north on U.S. 31, and she made a right turn on Earlywood Drive to head back to Boggstown in Shelby County.
Just before 1 a.m., police were called and found her abandoned vehicle on the side of the road at the corner of Graham Road and Earlywood Drive. The lights were on, her purse was on the seat, and the keys were in the ignition. Police found a new dent in the car that looked like it had come from a recent fender bender. But there was no one else at the intersection.
The police called and woke up Sutton to tell her they found her daughter’s car but that Kelly was missing. She went to the Franklin Police Department, talked with officers and got updates about what they were doing to try to find Kelly. When the stress of the search became too much, she would step outside the building and pace around the parking lot.
“I’d walk around; and every car that went by, I looked to see if she was inside yelling for help,” Sutton said.
Residents came out in force to search for Kelly. They drove the roads between Franklin and Boggstown, searched cornfields, barns and culverts to try to find her. People flooded the community with fliers about Kelly and hosted candlelight vigils as days passed and the hope of finding her alive began to fade.
Four days after Kelly went missing, Sutton got a call to come to the police department to look at some photos. Two women looking for some puppies along the side of the road near Camp Atterbury had found a woman’s body in a ravine.
She looked at the photographs and first saw a photo of the victim’s bare foot. It’s odd, but a mother always knows what their child’s foot looks like, she said.
She immediately knew that it was Kelly. The rest of the photos just confirmed it.
“I never had that complete closure and never saw her since that morning,” Sutton said.
Police didn’t have any suspects immediately, but the community was on alert after the seemingly random abduction and murder. About three weeks after her disappearance, Kelly’s shoes were found in a toilet at the Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area.
Police got a tip that Overstreet’s brother had information about the murder. He told police how he had picked up his brother that night. Overstreet had an unconscious woman wrapped in a blanket and he dropped them off near Camp Atterbury. Police searched Overstreet’s house, finding a hand-drawn map of the Atterbury area, the blanket Eckart was wrapped in, a ding on his van the same height as Kelly’s car and carpet fibers that matched those found on her body.
The evidence matched the story, all linking Overstreet to Kelly’s death. The clincher was DNA evidence found on her body that matched Overstreet with a certainty of 1 in 4 trillion.
Prosecutors asked Sutton if she wanted them to pursue the death penalty for Overstreet.
She talked with ministers, chewed on the decision for days with family and decided that yes, she wanted Overstreet to die for what he had done. After he was convicted in 2000, Judge Cynthia Emkes handed down the sentence of death.
The case has been too long and drawn out, Sutton said. The evidence is indisputable. The time has come for Overstreet to pay the price, she said.
Life in prison isn’t good enough, and he needs to die, she said, though she takes a long pause to think before answering why. Her answer is blunt, honest and confidently spoken.
“It’s what he deserves for what he did.”
Up to a new judge
Kelly has now been deceased for nearly as long as she was alive, and the process drags on. Sutton initially told herself it would be 17 years before Overstreet was finally put to death. That anniversary is approaching in less than a month, and the case is still working its way through the courts.
She’ll have to keep waiting, maybe a few more years, but the execution date feels closer than ever, Sutton said.
The case is now before a judge in South Bend, three hours away, who has not been involved in his trial and appeals. Doctors have been lined up to back attorneys’ claims that Overstreet is not fit for execution.
Sutton said she is scared and worried to have waited so long to know that the case could unravel before the end of this year.
She doesn’t get a say in what happens now. She’s not on any witness list. But she has hope that even a new judge will see through this newest attempt to try to stop the death sentence.
“I just feel like it will happen. I’ve got to believe in the system. I’ve believed in it so far,” she said.