Murder victim's legacy lives on

Michael Dean Overstreet
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Scott Swan/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - The man convicted of killing a Franklin College student in 1997 is scheduled to be executed on May 30, 2008. Michael Dean Overstreet may dominate headlines until his execution is carried out.  But the legacy of his victim continues to reveal itself at her high school, workplace and in Indiana courtrooms.  

In 1997, Kelly Eckart finished her shift at the Franklin Wal-Mart. She never made it home. Kelly was missing several days before authorities found her body in Brown County. A jury convicted Michael Dean Overstreet in a death penalty case.

"His DNA was in and on and around the victim," said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Brad Cooper, recalling the case he prosecuted nearly 11 years ago. 

Connie Sutton will not forgive Overstreet. 

"He killed my daughter," said Sutton. "He took her. He killed her. He raped her and then dumped her down a ravine.  He has no respect for life at all."  Sutton does not believe Overstreet will be executed in May. 

"I think it won't happen in May," said Sutton.  "I think he'll file federal appeals and so we'll be going through the same process that we did at the state level, we'll be going through a federal level too. It's going to be another four to ten years."

Prosecutors who won the case still believe they prevented Overstreet from killing others. 

"This was a very dangerous person who won't be on the street again," said Prosecutor Lance Hamner.

"I think of a guy who was probably on his way to being a serial killer, who just happened to get caught the first time," said Cooper.  "He was just one evil dude."

Eckart's death left an imprint on Indiana courtrooms.  In 2002, Eckart's parents fought for the passage of "Kelly's Law," which gives family members of victims the option to give impact statements at sentencing hearings.  They can tell convicted killers exactly how they feel about them. That was something Kelly's family couldn't do at the Overstreet trial.

"It doesn't have any impact on the criminal prosecution because it takes place after the sentencing, but I think it can have a cathartic effect for the family," said Johnson County prosecutor Lance Hamner.

"When we went to trial for Kelly and Overstreet was convicted, I couldn't get up and call him a murderer in front of him," said Sutton. "He was convicted. He was a convicted murderer. But I couldn't say anything to him that day because it wasn't a law. Now it is."

The effort to pass "Kelly's Law" earned Connie Sutton an honorary law degree from Franklin College where Kelly attended as a freshman.

"When I walked down that center aisle at graduation with gap and gown on, I felt like I was doing the walk for Kelly because she never got to do it," said Sutton. "She loved that school  She wanted to go there more than any anything. So I feel like I finished the walk for her."

Kelly's legacy is also blooming this spring at Franklin College.  Nicole Hensley, 22, walks in front of the tree planted in honor of Kelly Eckart.

"It is very beautiful in the spring once it blooms," said Hensley. "Walking by it, everyone notices how pretty it is. Not everybody knows what it means, but I know what it means."

Hensley attended the same high school as Kelly Eckart and is attending Franklin College in part because of Kelly.

"I am a recipient of the Kelly Eckart scholarship through Franklin College," said Hensley, who was in the fifth grade when Eckart was murdered.

"I remember posters all over the school about this missing girl," Hensley recalls.  "While I didn't know her personally, I knew my community was greatly affected by this."

The Eckart scholarship helped Hensley and nine other students pay for tuition. Hensley graduates in May.

"It's more than the money," said Hensley.  "I help fulfill her legacy and what she would have wanted to accomplish by graduating from Franklin."

At the Franklin Wal-Mart where Kelly worked, you can see Kelly's legacy on the "Missing Child" display. The girl who was once the focus of a missing person investigation now draws attention to other cases.

"You will see her picture and hopefully pan down to see there's a whole bunch of other people whose lives have been unsolved," said Chief Prosecutor Brad Cooper.

"Obviously, that was a very famous case of a missing person that everybody in this community knows about," says Hensley. "So having that associated with it brings attention to other missing child cases."

You can find Eckart's legacy at Triton Central High School where Kelly graduated as a member of the honor society. Her mother helps lead the guard. Connie Sutton won't leave practice until every girl does.

"People have to remember what happened to her, so it doesn't happen to them," said Sutton.  "Hopefully it reminds people to be careful, that not everybody out there is good," added Sutton. "If you're out in the middle of nowhere, and it's all dark and somebody tries to stop you, I don't care if he has a flashing light, put your flashers on to acknowledge that you see him and go place where you feel safe," said Sutton.

Sutton still wears Kelly's ring with her birthstone. She has the glasses, ankle bracelet and car keys that Kelly had the night she was murdered.

"It is sometimes hard to touch it, because the last time she touched it, she wasn't breathing," said Sutton.

Sutton watches home video of her daughter getting ready for a school dance, rollerblading on the driveway and practicing for the Triton Central Color Guard. It is one way to keep Kelly Eckart's memory alive.  Kelly's legacy continues to reveal itself in places and in people.