Unlikely Pen Pals: A Friendship with A Man on Death Row

By Rebekah Skelton Lily Hughes reviewed the items she would be taking with her to prison. She was allowed $10 in coins, her driver’s license and keys. She placed the items in a clear make-up bag, and dressed conservatively in jeans and a T-shirt. She had been inside a jail before but never a prison. She was nervous.

Hughes climbed in her car and set off on the three and a half hour drive from Austin to Livingston. When she arrived at the Polunsky Unit, where prisoners on Texas’ death row are housed, she gave the guard her license and the name and inmate number of the man she was there to visit: Justin Fuller, No. 999266. She parked her car and walked down a lush, green pathway that led to the complex.

Inside, she went through a metal detector and submitted to a pat-down. A guard escorted her down a long hallway and through a set of heavy metal doors. While another guard retrieved Fuller, she sat down at her designated cubicle. Nerves kicked into gear again and questions swirled in her head.

It’s a two-hour visit. What are we going to talk about? What’s he going to look like? What’s he going to be like?

Hughes and Fuller had been writing letters to each other for almost a year since August 1999. At the time, Hughes had just started an Austin chapter of the organization Campaign to End the Death Penalty and wanted to be pen pals with a death row prisoner to learn more about the conditions on death row. No one in the group knew how to start a pen pal relationship, so Lily logged onto a website called Lamp of Hope and looked through prisoner profiles until she found Fuller’s. He was just 21 at the time, and she liked what he had to say. Shortly after that, she wrote a letter.

“Dear Justin, My name is Lily Mae Hughes. I am in an organization called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which is how I obtained your name and address. I understand that you are interested in talking to folks, and since I am very much opposed to the death penalty, I am interested in talking to you and doing whatever I can to help.”

A few weeks passed before Hughes received a response from Fuller.

“Well I received your letter the other day and I wanted to respond as soon as I could. I have to say it is good to hear that you support us and come protest for not only the ones getting executed, but for the ones awaiting also. I just wanted to say thank you very much.”

The two exchanged letters for about six months before she asked if she could visit him on death row. He said yes, but he was only allowed to change his visiting list every six months, so it would take some time to get her name added. Six months later, Hughes sat in her assigned cubicle, waiting patiently for Fuller to be ushered in from his cell.

She waited about 20 minutes before a guard finally brought Fuller in. He was handcuffed, and since the only way to talk is to pick up a phone in the cubicle, the two exchanged stares for a few awkward minutes before Fuller flashed a big smile that immediately calmed Hughes’ nerves. The two hours she had worried about filling flew by. They talked about Fuller’s case, politics, international news and sports.

For a while after Hughes began visiting Fuller, their relationship was entirely political. She wanted the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to organize around Fuller’s case to call attention to capital punishment and to work toward ending executions. Fuller had been convicted in 1998 of abducting, robbing and killing 21-year-old Donald Whittington III in Tyler, along with three accomplices: Elaine Hays and Samhermundre Wideman, who were both sentenced to life in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2037; and Brent Chandler, who received a 25-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery after testifying against Fuller. Although Fuller admitted to being present for the crime, he maintained he was not the one who shot Whittington.

But after Hughes and Fuller became friends, Hughes’ priorities shifted. “Obviously, my goals changed when I started to realize that he was quickly becoming a friend,” Hughes says. “Then I wanted to do all I could to try to save him.”

Hughes created a petition, circulated a fact sheet she composed about Fuller’s case and spread the word by speaking at meetings and organizing rallies. Raising awareness and speaking about this case was challenging because Fuller’s parents, Ellis and Eddie, never wanted to participate or speak on his behalf. “Eddie was afraid,” says Sandra Reed, who met the Fullers because her son Rodney is also on Texas’ death row. “She said ‘You don’t know where we’re from.’ […] Some people in the community said things to her, stressing that they were going to kill her. Her lawyers said sit back and be quiet and they would take care of it.”

Although Fuller’s parents’ unwillingness to organize with the campaign presented a challenge, Hughes and Fuller stayed optimistic.

And while Hughes worked to focus attention on Fuller’s case, he helped with problems in her life, too. In 2005, a few years after marrying her husband Mike, Hughes miscarried her first child. In a letter Fuller wrote to her shortly after, he said, “When I read that you had a miscarriage it sadden me, cuz I know how much you want a baby.” During their visits Fuller encouraged Hughes to stay positive and reassured her she would be a great mom.

When Hughes finally got pregnant again near the end of the year, Fuller was excited and supportive. He even tried to arrange having other visitors carpool to Livingston with her so she wouldn’t have to make the trip alone.

But as the months and years dragged by, the idea of Fuller’s execution became less of a distant possibility and more of a reality.

“Well the 5th Circuit denied my rehearing, then the trial judge immediately called me (along w/ 2 others) back to the county and set an execution date for August 24th!!” Fuller wrote to Hughes on April 23, 2006. “Don [Bailey, Fuller’s appeals lawyer] was extremely pissed cuz I don’t file my writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court until June 10th. So everything will be a rush between June 10th and August 24th. Don said, I’ll get a stay but the reality that I’m looking from, I don’t know!! So this is what I face at the moment, but you know how this system goes.”

With his execution date looming, Fuller asked Hughes if she would be willing to act as a witness. She agreed, and on Aug. 22, 2006, along with her husband and 2-month-old baby, she journeyed to Livingston to see Fuller for the last time.

Normally, death row prisoners are allowed one two-hour visit each week. However, leading up to their executions, they have three days of “special visits,” where two people can visit at a time (rather than one), and visits are longer. When Hughes visited Fuller on the first day of his special visits, the two had not seen each other in three or four months. Hughes took her newborn son Oscar into the prison so he could meet Fuller, who she says had been a source of strength throughout her pregnancy.

After Hughes left the visit, Fuller’s father was waiting for her in the parking lot. He gave her a necklace Fuller made for her, and a drawing for Oscar — a colored-pencil sketch of a bear wearing pajamas, sleeping on a crescent moon. At the bottom of the drawing, Fuller wrote “Welcome Oscar.” Hughes immediately started crying. “Can you imagine him doing that?” she asks. “He was in his last days, and this is what he was doing.”

Two days later, Aug. 24, 2006 — Fuller’s execution day. Hughes, Mike and Oscar passed time at the hotel until about 1 p.m., when they drove from Livingston to Huntsville, where death row inmates are executed. When they arrived, Mike took Oscar and joined a small group of protesters outside. Hughes went to the hospitality house with Fuller’s brother Jason, his parents and another one of his pen pals, who had traveled from the Netherlands for the execution.

The atmosphere in the hospitality house — the area where witnesses wait to be taken to the viewing room — was tense. There was some nervous conversation, and they took turns on the phone with Fuller until about 4 p.m. During that time, a prison chaplain informed the group that Fuller said he might protest by laying down in his cell and refusing to walk so the guards would have to drag him out. The chaplain said this would be a bad idea and asked the family to persuade Fuller not to protest.

Hughes, who was growing angry and anxious as the execution approached, said no. “Why should we make it easier? I thought it was condescending and patronizing. I didn’t want to sit there and have them make me feel better, so I didn’t try to get him [not to protest]. They ended up having to drag him out," Hughes says.

Rob Gene Will II, also on Texas’ death row, says he knew Fuller for two or three years before Fuller was executed. “He was a highly respected person and a solid individual — that is something I can only say about a few in this environment,” he wrote in a letter.

Will also protested on Fuller’s behalf on his execution day. “[Justin] vowed to fight, physically resist, if they came to murder him. He was the first to do so, and I told him if he got an execution date, on my word and my honor, I would fight with him and bleed with him on that day. And I did," Will says.

Around 5 p.m. the guards walked the group from the hospitality house to the Walls Unit, where the execution would take place. They explained the process of what would happen and moved them to another waiting room.

Hughes felt numb. Thoughts whirled in her head.

If none of the guards were doing this, the execution wouldn’t be happening, she thought. But, then, we’re doing it too. We’re also participating. But are we really participating? Because Justin asked us to be here…

A few minutes before 6 p.m., the guards led the group down a hallway toward the viewing room. About halfway down, they stopped and took the group back without an explanation. There was a spark of hope. Maybe he got a stay, Eddie Fuller said. But two or three minutes later, the guards were ushering them down the hall again.

Inside the viewing room, the guards told the group not to get too close to the glass and not to yell. Then, the curtains covering the window drew back. Fuller was already strapped to the gurney. In place of his usual wide smile was a look of terror. Eddie stepped up to the glass. A guard barked at her to get back. "I would like to tell my family thank you for your support and my friends,” Fuller said. “Let everyone know that you must stay strong for each other. Take care of yourselves."

The drugs were administered. Fuller looked at Eddie and whispered, “I love you.” Her knees gave out. “It’s like watching a horror movie,” Hughes recalls. “It was also painful because it’s someone [I] love. I can’t imagine a worse moment in my life than I was feeling then.”

Fuller was pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m. The group was immediately led from the dark, solemn viewing room out into the bright August sun. Eddie and Ellis were going to rush over to the funeral home so they could touch Justin’s body while it was still warm. Hughes declined to go. She didn’t want to see him pumped with chemicals. She didn’t want that memory.

Hughes found Oscar and Mike. Mike hugged her and she started crying. They drove back to their hotel in Livingston, and she lay on the bed and sobbed for half an hour. After that, she didn’t cry over the execution again for months until asked to speak about it at a meeting.

Since that day, Hughes has had a hard time accepting Fuller’s death. “Of course he is gone, I know that, but I have spent a lot of time not thinking about the actual execution and then it just comes back to me at the most random times,” she says.  “Sometimes I just miss Justin so much, and I can picture him flashing that smile at me, and I still can't believe no one will ever see him smile again.”

Hughes hasn’t become close with any prisoners since Fuller’s execution. She has written to a couple of inmates but kept it mostly political. She isn’t ready for another pen pal yet.

A few days before the execution, Fuller sent a letter to all of his pen pals. “Each of you always applauds my strength and courage in this adverse situation. But it's all of you that I admire, because without you I probably would be crazy. <smile>  It's the strength that all of you give me that allows me to carry on and hope for a better day. 

“So all of you...remain strong and remain positive because our battle is ongoing and we can't give up now!! So let us move forward and continue the fight!”

Now, six years after Fuller’s execution, Hughes is still fighting to abolish the death penalty.

“Seeing Justin murdered in cold blood really put a fire in me,” Hughes says. “It angered me, and I have really tried to channel that anger in a positive direction to win change […] But it's still hard sometimes. It really has made me loathe our justice system in a way that feels very personal.”