“I feel like, a little, that I’ve let Kelly down.”
I recorded those words with my keyboard one year ago. They came from the mother of Kelly Eckart, an 18-year-old girl who was abducted, raped and killed in Franklin, Indiana, in 1997.
She had just received news that the man who was undeniably responsible, Michael Dean Overstreet, would not be put to death.
By the time she got that news, it was 17 years after her daughter’s death. She had sat through every hearing, trial and appeal. She had been riding the unbearably slow train of capital punishment only to have it derail right before making it to the platform.
Overstreet, who suffers from extreme paranoid schizophrenia, was determined to be incompetent to be executed. A South Bend judge ruled he was too sick and too delusional to comprehend the severity of the punishment delivered to him — death.
The ruling, effectively the end to the death penalty case, brought a mix of emotions.
She was disappointed that her daughter was denied one final stroke of justice. There was nothing she could have done to prevent it, but still, she felt like she let her daughter down.
She was relieved that she wouldn’t have to stand in that room in the Michigan City penitentiary and watch Overstreet’s last moments. She didn’t want to go, but her son did, and she vowed she would be there to support him.
She grimly observed that another few decades of Overstreet having to stay on death row, living with extreme paranoia and hallucinations of shadowy, indistinct figures that haunted his vision might be an even more severe punishment.
And she concluded by realizing that maybe then, she could finally try to bring the long, long story of her daughter’s grisly death to a close. “That person isn’t worth any more of my time,” she said.
Overstreet definitely did it. DNA evidence had easily proved that to a jury and every court after that upheld the ruling and sentence. He had bumped her car with his van at a unlighted intersection after midnight, snatched her when she got out of her car to check the damage, raped her, strangled her with her shoelaces and overall straps and dumped her body in a ravine in a wooded area.
There are 13 other people like Overstreet awaiting the death penalty in Indiana for equally horrific crimes. One has been on death row since 1986. The last three arrived in 2013. Currently no executions are scheduled in Indiana. As of last fall, Overstreet was the one who was closest to injection.
Indiana hasn’t executed anyone since 2009.
Nationwide, the number of executions per year has been declining since 1999 when 98 people were put to death. Nationwide, 35 people were executed in 2014. As of Wednesday, 26 people have been executed this year. Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have abolished the death penalty.
Between 2000 and 2007, death penalty cases in this state cost more than 10 times as much as life without parole cases, according to a study done by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency in 2010. More lawyers are needed, more appeals are handled and cases slog on for years and years.
So why, as Hoosiers, are we still seeking the death penalty?
From everything I learned about Kelly’s death, Overstreet deserves to pay. I’m sure the other death row inmates probably deserve retribution too.
But for the families of victims, not even vengeance can make the tragic loss truly go away. The best a person can do is learn to cope, until he or she can process and compartmentalize and get to a point where the loss doesn’t dominate life.
I incredibly admired the frank, honest, sometimes macabre way Kelly’s mother would talk about the murder and her life since. The strength she projected was, for lack of words, amazing. During years of trials and appeals, she said she never cried in the courtroom. I absolutely believe that was true.
But she cried in South Bend when a mental health worker from the prison testified that Overstreet told him he regretted what he did and what he put Kelly’s family through. Overstreet has never directly confessed to the killings. It was a second-hand admission, but it was the closest she ever got to hearing words of regret. And she wept.
It was apparent that over 17 years of waiting for Overstreet to die, the wound was as open and raw as it had ever been. The healing had been delayed as the case dragged on, never getting a chance to begin. She had spent nearly as much time mourning her daughter as she had raising her.
I don’t know that Kelly’s mom wanted death so much as she needed closure. She could have gotten that closure much more quickly if they had locked him up and thrown away the key long ago.
And I realized that the one who was being punished the most by the death penalty wasn’t Overstreet.
It was her.
Steve Garbacz is county reporter for The News Sun. You can find him on Twitter @SteveGarbaczKPC.