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Enduring legal process doesn't change parents' desire for justice

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Cost of Justice

For 11 years, Dale and Connie Sutton’s lives as parents have been about ensuring what they see as justice for their murdered daughter.

They know it won’t bring her back, but the death penalty is what they want to see for Michael Dean Overstreet, convicted and sentenced to die for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Kelly Eckart in September 1997. He’s been on death row for more than a decade but the legal process is far from finished, and they are doing what they can to stay involved.

victims-main-15col Dale and Connie Sutton sit in their home in Boggstown, discussing the legal process they’ve endured for 11 years in the name of their daughter, Kelly Eckart, who was murdered in 1997. Convicted killer Michael Dean Overstreet is on death row after his conviction in 2000, and his request for habeas corpus relief remains pending in federal court. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The voice of those on the victim’s side often fades during the appellate process of a capital case, where the chances of a death sentence reversal became more likely and the proceedings focus more on legal and procedural issues.

Not every victim’s family agrees the death penalty is the most appropriate solution. Local prosecutors and the Indiana attorney general’s office say that decision can create tension among relatives sometimes and tears families apart. Some cases, such as the recent execution of Matthew Eric Wrinkles for the Evansville triple murders of his wife and brother in-law and wife in late 2009, split the victims’ families.

But to the Suttons, it’s not about the legal briefs, the dollar sign, or even the person convicted in 2000, and it’s not a case of justice delayed being justice denied. They know that estimates put the cost of the capital case at $2 million or more.

“It’s about justice,” Dale said. “This is the right sentence for the crime.” Connie adds, “It’s worth every penny.”

They’ve attended every hearing, from start to finish – except the initial arraignment because Connie recalls they didn’t know they could attend it. They plan to continue showing up, though they haven’t officially decided if they’d attend the execution in Michigan City.

The average length of a death penalty case in Indiana is 17 years, based on death penalty appeals in Indiana during the past three decades. The Suttons know they could still be far from the final moment.

“Regardless of how you feel about capital punishment, you know it’s a process that takes time,” he said.

Kelly disappeared and was missing several days in 1997 before her body was discovered in Brown County. It took three years before Overstreet was arrested and tried in Johnson Superior 1. That was Judge Cynthia Emkes’ second murder case – she presided over a five-week trial as a special judge in the Marion County capital case against Eric Holmes.

The Overstreet trial lasted three weeks before a sequestered Clark County jury found him guilty in May 2000 of rape, murder, and criminal confinement. Judge Emkes sentenced him in July of that year, and the Indiana Supreme Court upheld his convictions in February 2003.

victimfamily-15col Surrounded by family photos, Dale and Connie Sutton explain why they feel their daughter’s killer should be executed. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

A year later, Judge Emkes denied Overstreet post-conviction relief and the Indiana Supreme Court upheld that denial in November 2007. There was one dissent – Justice Robert Rucker saw Overstreet’s “mental illness” as grounds to not execute him. The justice wrote that he didn’t see the convicted killer’s mental state as any different than someone who might be considered mentally retarded, and as a result executing him would be unconstitutional.

Both parents say it was difficult listening to what was said during trial and in the other courts by defense attorneys, but they understand it is part of the process and they are pleased that the legal steps are being taken properly to eliminate more questions and issues down the road.

“A wise person said once to us that the whole thing is like a house of cards, and the defense tries to pull one out so the whole thing comes crashing down,” Dale said.

The odds are stacked against death penalty cases overall. About 5 percent of those initially sought result in an execution. So far, Overstreet’s death sentence has been upheld once on post-conviction before Judge Emkes, twice at the state appellate level, and most recently at the federal level. Overstreet’s attorneys filed a habeas petition in 2008, and a ruling came in early March from U.S. Judge Philip Simon in the Northern District of Indiana denying it. The judge has declined to alter his judgment.

The Suttons are now prepared for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to review Overstreet’s case before it moves to the clemency phase and then execution.

“This is just a continuation,” Connie said. “I don’t think we are moving any differently than what we expected. It’s a long, hard road, and not one for the weak.”

Both say they have monitored the rulings and kept up on what’s happening in court primarily through the attorneys at the trial level and now from the state. One of the most beneficial resources the couple found was the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office victim’s advocacy staff that kept in regular contact with them and prepped them for everything that would be happening – from courtroom etiquette, to the evidence that would be presented, to the stages of the proceedings and cumulative timeline. Once Overstreet’s case moved to the appellate level, they kept in touch with Indiana Deputy Attorney General James Martin, who has continued to explain the process.

Before all of this began, Connie said they didn’t know much about the law and didn’t dwell on the death penalty. But she’s become fascinated with the process, and while they do not read all of the briefs or pleadings in the case, she said it feels as though she can at least understand what is being written.

The Suttons don’t know whether they’ll actually attend Overstreet’s execution if and when it gets to that point, but they appreciate having the chance to make that choice. That’s not always been the case.

Eckart’s death left an imprint on Indiana courtrooms. The Suttons helped change the rules on being present at execution as well as being able to offer the victim’s family the opportunity to speak at sentencing. In 2002, the Suttons fought for the passage of “Kelly’s Law” that gives victim’s family members the option to offer an impact statement at sentencing hearings. Connie received an honorary degree from Franklin College where Kelly was a freshman, as a result of her work to change the law.

That same type of victim voice doesn’t exist at the appellate level, and the Suttons say they’d like to see that change.

“There comes a time in the legal process where victims’ voices are silenced,” he said. “We’d like to tell our story before a judge, before he or she puts a dollar amount on the execution or wipes it away.”

That’s what this is about, the Suttons say: They want to make sure justice is done for those who are still here – those who’ve not had the chance to see their daughter graduate from college or start a family and who must visit her gravesite for her birthday.

“Executing Michael Dean Overstreet won’t bring Kelly back, we know that,” Dale said. “But he won’t ever be able to hurt anyone else. The Constitution talks about the rights of the accused more than a dozen times, but victim’s rights are mentioned zero times. You can talk about dollars and what this lawyer and everyone goes through, but no one knows what it’s like until you walk a mile in these shoes.”•

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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