To whom it may concern: A Letter on Dempsey Hawkins to the New York State Parole Board.
I have written as an advocate for parole to the board on Dempsey Hawkins’ behalf before. Since 2006, he and I have been corresponding on many but predominately literary matters. He responded to an article in The Amsterdam News about my bookshop in Harlem, as did several other prisoners around the country. My bookshop on 160th Street looks at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest residence and George Washington’s headquarters during 1776’s Battle of Harlem Heights. Arguably the commander-in-chief’s first military victory, and considered the “psychological turning point of the Revolution,” in the 20th century Duke Ellington called the same house “the Crown of Sugar Hill,” the neighborhood home to Ellington, Basie, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson and the like. The shop’s stock is about our local history: from revolutionary to present times.
In the letters from prisoners, the bookstore represents ideals of the liberty they aspire to. Among the most articulate of an articulate lot was Mr. Hawkins’s. I wrote back to whoever wrote but none of the other prisoners maintained a correspondence beyond a couple of exchanges. Neither did they read or write as well. Letter writing, as you know, is a lost art. As an antiquarian, a qualified appraiser, I make a study of these things. This past summer my wife and I staged an exhibition on the 18th century letters of Eliza Jumel (of the landmark Mansion above), her husband Aaron Burr, and their world. With my book, an anthology drawn from my collection of Africa’s incunabula, Life Turns Man Up and Down (NY: Pantheon, 2001), I acquired a reputation as a literary critic and an authority on a place I’d never been and people I’d never met, divined by reading. I say this toward qualifying my commending the prisoner on the grounds of knowing someone from their letters.
A year ago I published on my website A Letter from Prison by Dempsey, addressing the issue of his Rehabilitation, Deterrence, and Retribution, toward it reaching a greater audience. It is well thought. As does all of our correspondence, it confirms the genuineness of Mr. Hawkins remorse. In our correspondence, read in total, Dempsey’s ever recognized his responsibility for the death of someone he loved. He’s consistently refrained from melodramatising a tragedy. In getting to know Dempsey I found out what he did, from him and from others. It’s the same story; save in the ugly wrath of the hysteric racists that have weighed in on the subject. The slanderous sexual/racial accusations made in internet forums when a New York Times reporter unsympathetically reviewed Dempsey’s case in print represent the extreme opposition to the case Dempsey makes for forgiveness and parole.
Racists making cause of the case 35 years later give one pause. What if race weren’t a factor? If Susan had been black would the case have been judged differently? Not in Mr. Hawkins mind but by the false values of racism it could have. As an appraiser I ask what the comps tell us? What if Susan’s killer was “an older Kennedy-esque preppie altar boy” gone to Choate, went to Boston University, and had performed this crime of passion under the influence of drugs on, say, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, how might he have been judged?
Dempsey has never made race or class an issue in his coming to terms with what he did in our correspondence on the subject. Most people would. Most people romanticize themselves, deny responsibility, and have an excuse they politicize. In similar circumstances, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did and it ended in tears. Mr. Hawkins hasn’t. His most vocal, to me offensive, critics have. In our correspondence he’s consistently respective in his penance. His wrong is an inexcusable given. But unforgivable? What’s right is complicated. Who can say what’s fair? Can we believe what he says? The question is, Is my read “bullshit”? I don’t think so. I have taken Mr. Hawkins at his word because of its veracity, which is a hard thing to maintain. In print-on-paper, you can you can divine a fake, you can see a lie. In my appraisal, he makes a thorough confession and has accepted his punishment, model prisoner.
He testifies eloquently on rehabilitation, deterrence and restitution because he understands what he is talking about. They are serious subjects. They are what we are weighing in doing justice here. Susan is dead. It’s Dempsey’s fault. He has lived a lifetime in consequence of a sin he’ll take to his grave and beyond. He has not lived a lifetime of sin. I’ve known several exemplary lives that haven’t been as long as his sentence. He is not asking anybody forgive and forget anything. He can’t and won’t.
Were he out of jail, he’d be getting away with nothing. If it takes forever to atone for his sin, it’ll still happen. In my appraisal, I don’t think it’s worth the State’s money to incarcerate him and I don’t see any return. It’s cold out but I think he should be out. Given an opportunity, I think he’ll make and do good.
Jumel Terrace Books. Jan. 24th, 2014.
Also see: Letter from Prison: Redemption. Rehabilitation. Deterrence. by Dempsey Hawkins.