Family opted not to seek death penalty for daughter’s sake

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

“She usually found what she thought to be the underdog of things… I’m sure she would have defended the guy and his actions.”

And that was Elizabeth in a nutshell.

Her dark hair, big brown eyes and huge smile were those of a tough advocate who would jump to prove she could do anything she was told she couldn’t.

“I hated arguing with her. She didn’t have a whole lot of arguments with people that knew her very well,” Sonny Kelton recalled fondly.

A strident defender of equality, champion of the less fortunate and generous to a fault, the free-willed criminology major hadn’t decided what she was going to do with her life yet.

Without question, her grades were inconsistent with her intellect and those who knew her saw Elizabeth as a pleasant mystery, a surprise waiting to unfold.

“We were looking forward to seeing what she was going to be in life. I don’t know how many teachers told us they couldn’t wait to see what she was going to grow up and do with her life,” Kelton said.

But that anticipation ended the day Elizabeth died.

They hadn’t seen her since her sister’s college graduation a few months before, though they talked regularly by phone. The next time they were with their youngest daughter was the day they and about 800 mourners gathered in Eunice to lay her to rest.

“She was the most beautiful girl, and that’s not being prejudice. You know, I look at her picture and wonder how somebody could look in her eyes and choke her to death. It just blows my mind,” Sonny Kelton said with a strained, wistful voice.

In the 16 years since she died in that bathtub, the Kelton family has approached the court proceedings with solidarity. After the sentence was handed down, they have attended every parole hearing they could, keeping an eye on Tommy Willis as he paid his dues to society for killing their Elizabeth.

And no, 16 years doesn’t quite seem like enough, when, “our baby will still be in the ground in 10 more years or 15 years.”

But they were given power over the final decision to accept Willis’ plea all those years ago, and they agreed — second-degree murder and 28 years — knowing he would serve less.

They had already endured five years of legal wrangling and truth be told, didn’t want to see their daughter, sister, loved one, put on trial.

Kelton supports the death penalty, believing in its absence, “it makes it easier to pull the trigger, or keep choking, or keep beating.”

But in the end, his family decided to spare Willis’ life, if for nothing more than to preserve Elizabeth’s memory and give her dignity.