On April 20, Chase Hawkins sat down as he had countless times for a year a half to write to his friend. With the eight executions planned in Arkansas between April 17-27, losing his pen pal became a frighteningly real possibility.
Since October 2015, Hawkins, 26, a member of St. Jude Church in Jacksonville, had corresponded with death row inmate Marcel Williams through the Death Row Support Project, which facilitates communication with those on death row.
“It was late that night, after the execution just happened, I wrote out a letter to Marcel and I realized it would probably be the last one I would write and realizing that halfway through I was crying about that,” Hawkins said. “There were moments I had to stop and question about ‘I am crying over this person who did this horrible thing’ … but he was human and someone I came to know.”
Hawkins encouraged Williams to have courage, faith and hope, and that he was “not giving up hope.”
It was the last letter Williams would receive from Hawkins. Williams was executed April 24 along with Jack Jones, the first double execution in the United States in 17 years.
“I braced myself for it. With Ledell (Lee)’s execution (April 20) I was living with what was already going to happen to Marcel,” Hawkins said. “You still hold out hope for all these last minute motions.”
Williams was convicted in 1997 for the abduction, rape and murder of Stacy Errickson. He spent the next 20 years in prison.
“You don’t end up on death row for petty theft or anything. They’ve done really bad things,” Hawkins said. “And so it is hard to reconcile that, but as I wrote Marcel more and more, the person that I was writing to was very different. We can never know what is in someone’s heart, but he was different than the man that went in there.”
A pro-life advocate, Hawkins was compelled to get involved somehow with death row ministry when he saw a simple, yet powerfully worded sticker in St. Jude Religious Education Director Paula Price’s office: “Who would Jesus execute?”
He wrote to Williams, a Catholic, about twice a week, starting out with handwritten letters but moving to email. Hawkins, an internal auditor at a Conway bank, would share about “anything and everything” that he was doing in life.
When he started, Hawkins did not think for a minute he’d get attached. He was writing to Williams because “it was the right thing to do.”
“It really helped writing Marcel to see a more human side to these people. To see his interests, his life leading up to this, his fear going into this.
Generally, the correspondence was kept upbeat and hopeful rather than focusing on the impending reality.
“I remember the last letter I got from him was probably two weeks before,” his death, Hawkins said. “It was just a quick note — Hey how are you doing, things have been really busy here, but I’ll write you longer when things settle down, have a good weekend.”
The fate of Williams’ victim, and those of other death row inmates, was no doubt “horrendous,” Hawkins said, adding he would never be angry at the victim’s families for supporting the death penalty.
“I’ve never seen it as justice so much as revenge, which is, of course, a normal human emotion we experience, but that should not play into our justice system. … I do feel for those victims’ families. I can’t understand how it might make them feel better to see that, I don’t know how that would bring them closure, but again it’s not something thankfully I’ve been through,” he said. “To think about the process of having your last meal and sitting in a cell and being moved to the death chamber where they’re going to strap you down to let people who want to see you die, let them watch. Even though they didn’t have compassion or mercy, their victims suffered immensely, we’re taught always to show compassion and mercy even to the most hardened sinners.”
While Hawkins and Williams had discussed meeting at some point, it turned out to be at a North Little Rock funeral home April 28 during Williams’ visitation.
“I did go up and greet two females, presumably family … I went up and said, ‘Hi, my name is Chase. I’ve been writing to Marcel for over a year now. He was a good man and I’m very sorry and we’ll miss him,’” Hawkins said. “It was as simple as that, but it made me feel better for doing it. It offered me a sense of closure being able to at least say what little I did to the family.”
For now, Hawkins said he is taking a break from writing to death row inmates, to deal with the emotions of losing his friend.
“People do change. I certainly obviously haven’t murdered anybody or anything along those lines, but I’ve certainly done things I’m not proud of,” Hawkins said. “I’ve changed from five years ago and I’m just 26 and 20 years on death row is certainly time enough for people to change. We’re certainly not asking to let them go free — let them live.”
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