By Wendy Nugent, Newton Now
There were tears and unhappy reactions from loved ones after Harvey County District Court Judge Marilyn Wilder handed down the sentencing for Keith Hawkins, the man who plead guilty to the murder of a young mother and her 4-year-old daughter in 2017 in Newton.
On Friday afternoon, Wilder gave out the sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole during sentencing.
Family spoke during the hearing, and Harvey County Attorney David Yoder had a press conference following sentencing.
It appeared there were at least 30 family members present.
Yoder called the murders “horrendous.” On Aug. 8, Alyssa Runyon, 24, and 4-year-old daughter Zaylynn Paz were found murdered in their Newton home.
In light of family not seeming to be pleased regarding the sentence, Yoder addressed the matter.
“We did not make this decision in a vacuum,” he said. “Mr. Lane and I, Newton Police Department, met on a number of times with the family and discussed all of the options, all of the avenues, all of the possibilities with the present status of the death penalty in Kansas, where it’s on the books and it’s obviously a lawful thing for law enforcement and prosecutors to seek. Realistically no one has been executed in Kansas since the 1960s and the family realized that swifter justice would be accomplished by agreeing not to seek the death penalty and see that he serve life without possibility of parole.”
He said Judge Wilder indicated nothing will restore the family.
“Absolutely nothing will restore this family to a status they had before this horrible crime was committed,” Yoder said, standing at a podium between the Kansas state flag and the American flag on Friday afternoon in the courthouse. “There is nothing that can bring them back. Justice is a fluid thing, and it’s in the eyes of the beholder, and obviously there’s no justice that the family could see that would replace the lives that they lost, but under the circumstances, this was the best outcome that all of us could achieve. It brings the family closure.”
Hawkins, 20, plead guilty to one count capital murder, and two counts of first-degree murder were dropped on Dec. 8 in Harvey County District Court.
After the Friday press conference, Yoder met with family to read them a letter Hawkins wrote to them. Yoder said the letter would not be made available to the public.
“This is just between Keith Hawkins and the family,” he said after adding the letter won’t be part of the public record.
Yoder also said Hawkins had a previous juvenile-offender case and had been on parole, although Yoder said it was his understanding Hawkins had completed supervision on his juvenile offender case. To make sure, Yoder said he’d have to go back and look at the file again, so his only requirement was to, when he moved into a particular location, register as a sex offender with the sheriff’s office.
“There’s a limited jurisdiction; there’s a limited amount of time that the state can continue supervising a juvenile offender,” he said. “He completed his probationary requirements, and he was finished with his juvenile sentence. He had the requirement to continue registering as a sex offender, and apparently he had been bouncing around from location to location in Harvey County without having registered and was noncompliant in McPherson County, but at that point in time, no one really knew where he was ’cause he was basically homeless and a transient.”
Yoder said there are no other requirements for sex offenders other than reporting four times a year and reporting changes in address or employment within three to five days.
“Until it’s discovered that he’s noncompliant, there’s really no other supervision or activity in this case,” Yoder said, while members of the press and Newton Police Department Chief Eric Murphy listened.
Hawkins will be turned over to the Department of Corrections as soon as all the paperwork is completed, and put where they have a place available.
“So I can’t tell you exactly how long he’ll remain here in the Harvey County jail,” Yoder said. “It won’t be very long.”
Yoder also addressed the speed at which justice was served.
“In the nearly 36 years that I’ve been an attorney and most of those a prosecutor, I’ve seen cases move swiftly; I’ve seen cases drag out for five or six years before they get to a trial, and it’s clear that the longer case drags out, the longer it is before a family can have closure before they can set it aside, and it’s never going to be set aside,” he said.
The part regarding a trial and the court can be set aside, he said, and there’s a sense of finality with that.
“My experience has been the swifter you can bring justice as long as it’s not sacrificing the results, are better for everyone,” he said.