NEWTON (TNS) — When 20-year-old Keith Hawkins pleaded guilty Friday to capital murder in the beating of Alyssa Runyon and stabbing of her 4-year-old daughter Zaylynn Paz, he agreed to more than spending the rest of his life in prison without a chance for parole.

He agreed to write a statement that the victims' family requested — an answer to their main question.

"Why?"

Why brutally kill this mother and child.

Harvey County Attorney David Yoder described the statement as a "very unusual" part of a formal plea agreement in a capital murder case. The agreement allows Hawkins to spend the rest of his life in prison in exchange for escaping a potential death sentence.

The statement he agreed to will go only to the family, Yoder said.

It's not the first capital murder case Yoder has pursued. A capital murder charge, which is punishable by death, is supposed to be limited to the worst of the worst crimes, in this case multiple brutal deaths. The veteran prosecutor said he couldn't think of a more painful and senseless crime, one without a full explanation.

There was no evidence of "pre-planning" by Hawkins before he killed the mother and her child, Yoder said. "I have no evidence that he went to their house with the intention of killing them." Any premeditation occurred after he was in their home, Yoder said.

 

'A place to stay'

In a brief news conference in Newton on Friday after the 30-minute hearing at which Hawkins pleaded guilty, Yoder was asked about how Hawkins and Runyon, a former Garden City resident, knew each other.

"I wouldn't call them friends," he said. Acquaintances; they knew some of the same people. "He needed a place to stay. She agreed to put him up."

On the morning of Aug. 8, officers found Runyon's body in one bedroom of her Newton duplex and her daughter's body in another. Although Runyon appeared to have been strangled, the main cause of death was "severe head trauma," Yoder said. "Basically, she was beaten to death."

Investigators in Newton and Texas, where Hawkins was arrested within hours of the grisly discovery, worked aggressively to catch him, Yoder said.

The family is "still and forever grieving," and they don't wish to comment to the media and have asked that people respect their privacy, he said.

Hawkins still faces a Feb. 9 sentencing hearing, but that is essentially a formality.

 

The only one smiling

At the hearing where he pleaded guilty, Hawkins was brought in secured with ankle chains. He wore an orange jail jumpsuit. His reddish hair was braided in two thin tails behind his head.

He seemed to be the only person in the courtroom smiling.

Before he took his seat, he beamed at two women, one middle-aged and one younger, sitting behind him. The older woman dabbed tears.

Across the courtroom, relatives of the slain mother and child wore their grief on their faces — in their strained eyes, their wincing from emotional pain. Some quietly sobbed. For them, it was like another funeral.

Before he left the courtroom, Hawkins turned to the two women behind him, met their eyes, smiled and said, "Love you all."

He then faced one of his attorneys, specially trained in death penalty defense work, shook the lawyer's hand and said, "Thank you. I appreciate it." Then a deputy led him away, his chains rattling.

 

Concerns about system

Authorities had arrested Hawkins in Texas after he drove Runyon's Dodge Avenger there. He was a homeless man who had been bouncing around Newton, according to Yoder.

Alyssa's father, Edward Runyon, said in the days after the murders that his understanding is that his daughter met Hawkins through a friend of a friend. He said that his daughter wouldn't have allowed Hawkins in her home if she had known he was a sex offender.

The Eagle reported in August that Hawkins, who was 19 at the time of the murders, had been sentenced when he was 14 for aggravated indecent liberties with a 5-year-old girl in McPherson County. He was 12 at the time of that crime. But it put him only on the sex offender registry seen only by law enforcement.

Edward Runyon, a bail bondsman, said in August that the legal system failed his daughter and granddaughter because it did not publicly disclose Hawkins' status as a sex offender.

In the few years after his sex-crime conviction, Hawkins' sentence was increased because he incurred about 24 probation violations and at least six new convictions.

The Eagle also found in records that Hawkins was released from supervision early: A judge ordered his release from supervision this past February, six months before the killings. Otherwise, he would have remained under supervision until a week before the murders.