The state of Alabama killed a man Thursday night and social media — where much of public opinion is expressed these days — went wild. Nathaniel Woods spent life on Death Row for more than a decade for his role in the 2004 murders of three Birmingham police officers while numerous courts heard his appeals and upheld his sentence. Suddenly he’d become a hashtag — #nathanielwoods.
Kim Kardashian West weighed in, filling her barrage of Twitter pitches for her new clothing line with appeals to spare Woods from execution “for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“#NathanielWoods is scheduled to be executed in Alabama TONIGHT for murders he did not commit,” Kardashian tweeted Thursday. “Join the broad coalition — including members of the jury and relatives of the victims — in urging @GovernorKayIvey and @AGSteveMarshall to stay Nate’s execution.”
The son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also made an appeal for mercy.
A temporary stay was issued, but neither the courts nor Gov. Kay Ivey chose to stop the execution, and at 9 p.m. in the death chamber at Holman Prison in Atmore, Woods’ sentence was carried out.
There was truth in the last-minute appeals. Woods was not the triggerman. But there’s a gulf between a 140-character Twitter screed and the complicated and nuanced background of capital punishment in Alabama.
Ivey has been roundly criticized for upholding the execution, and accused of hypocrisy considering her support of a near-total abortion ban passed by lawmakers earlier in her term. However, these are the tough calls a governor has to make, and knee-jerk criticism is unfair.
Under Alabama law, accomplices to capital murder are subject to the same punishment as those who actually cause the death. Court after court upheld Woods’ conviction and sentence; it would be inappropriate for a governor to usurp that course without good reason to suspect an injustice is afoot.
That’s not to say that the death penalty is just. There is ample reason for Alabama lawmakers to revisit capital punishment and embark on a thoughtful examination of the practice. They should consider that since the 1980s, the courts have freed eight inmates from death row while the state executed 67 others.
Opposition to the death penalty is understandable. Expressing a belief that it’s unfair to punish an accomplice as if he committed the murder himself is difficult to argue against as well. However, how many people even knew Woods’ name until his execution date drew near? More important, where was the empathetic outcry for the officers killed and the one injured in the incident that landed Woods on death row?
That incident resulted in the deaths of Officers Carlos Owen, Harley A. Chisholm III and Charles R. Bennett. Officer Michael Collins was injured. Where are their hashtags?