By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
“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 hate 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 prejudiced. 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.
“We discussed it and prayed about it and (then-District Attorney Randall Harris) had everything ready to go for the death penalty,” he remembered.
“It got to the point of figuring out it would have been Elizabeth on trial not Tommy Willis, and we didn’t want her drug (through the mud) and not be able to defend herself.”
Sonny Kelton admits, in a roundabout way, they granted Tommy Willis his life. But the way he sees it, they also handed it over to God.
“We’ve all got to pay God one of these days on what we do here on earth. The Bible tells if we can’t forgive, the Lord won’t forgive us for our wrongdoing. It takes a lot of prayer and a lot of willpower, but I see no reason why my family or I should go to Hell over what this guy did,” he said.
“It took me a long time to do it, and it’s only been a couple of years, but I’ve realized by not forgiving this guy, I was living in a hypocritical way by not doing it. I released all that stuff and made it where it worked. But it’s still hard from day to day, and I still live through this.”
They were warned that families often fall apart after a murder, and they understand why, now that they look back over the pain of the last decade and a half. But they refused to let it happen to them.
Their family has grown, with their first grandchild, a girl, born five years after Elizabeth died, and they reveled in the new life, turning to God to keep their family strong.
Even with his devotion to forgiveness, Kelton can barely mask his anger when he hears that Willis accepts responsibility for his daughter’s death. And he is skeptical of Willis’ professed remorse.
“I’ve never seen remorse come from his body language and I’ve never heard anything from his mouth except that he got caught. I have no belief in that statement whatsoever, because if he meant that, he would have told the family,” he said.
Nonetheless, Kelton has a strong hope for Willis’ success in his new life and hopes it won’t all be for naught.
“That’s part of the forgiveness process, is the hoping that this man will step up and make something of his life. He wasted 15 years of his life in a penitentiary cell,” he said.
“You can always hope that the Lord can lead him in that direction and that he can do it, make his dream come true. A sin is a sin. Murder is no different than a white lie in the eyes of the Lord; it just affects people a whole lot different… We have so many repeat offenders that come and go from jail so regularly, sometimes it’s hard for people to understand that a man can change.
The Keltons will probably follow up on Willis, at least for a little while. And Sonny Kelton hopes his life will have meaning and recognizes that Elizabeth’s death does not have to make Willis a lost cause.
“I think Mr. Willis got to a point where he didn’t know how to back out of what he was doing when he could have… A lot of things happen in life that happen on the spur of the moment that makes this a bad decision on his part,” he said.
“Hopefully he can be productive for the rest of his life. I think we would like to hear that he’s doing well versus being in trouble.”
And that’s what they believe Elizabeth, who always saw the good in people, would have wanted too.