WASHINGTON—A small group of community activists sang, spoke, and grieved together on Monday night near the busy intersection of 14th Street and Park Road in Columbia Heights, four days after the controversial execution of Nathaniel Woods. As people walked by, on their way home from work or back from a grocery run, some stopped to ask questions. Some signed cards for Woods’ family. Others joined the healing circle.
“My hope is that we don’t have to come out and do this over and over again,” said Darakshan Raja, an organizer for the Justice for Muslim Collectives, to the twenty or so people gathered. The vigil was organized by various anti-incarceration groups, including JMC, Occupation Free D.C., and the Peace House D.C.
Woods was executed shortly after 9 p.m. at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama on March 5.
He was convicted in Alabama in 2005 for the murder of three Birmingham police officers. Woods did not actually fire the gun, and two jurors in Woods’ trial voted to spare his life, but Alabama is the only state that allows a death penalty sentencing without a unanimous jury.
His case garnered national attention from civil rights groups, celebrities, and activists such as Martin Luther King III due to allegations that Woods was falsely convicted through a trial rife with legal deficiencies.
“By even refusing to acknowledge what Mr. Woods own jury concluded – his innocence – the State of Alabama exposed the viscerally horrific reality about America’s capital punishment system: we execute the innocent,” said Diann Rust-Tierney the executive director at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She said she hopes the intense media scrutiny on the case will create an environment both nationally and in Southern states where “fact-driven discussions on abolishing the death penalty can take root.”
The Supreme Court ordered a temporary stay moments before the execution was scheduled, but it was soon lifted. Gov. Kay Ivey declined to intervene, and the execution went on as planned.
“In the case of Nathaniel Woods, the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of the State of Alabama are reprehensible, and have potentially contributed to an irreversible injustice,” King wrote on Twitter after the execution. “It makes a mockery of justice and constitutional guarantees to a fair trial.”
The number of executions nationally has followed a downward trend since a high of 98 executions in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There were 22 executions last year, three of which were in Alabama. While some experts say that fewer executions could lead to heightened media scrutiny on each instance, an extremely small number of cases actually break through to mainstream coverage the way Woods’ did.
Five people have been executed in the United States so far this year, but Woods’ was the only one to draw national attention and reaction from celebrities, like Kim Kardashian.
Christopher Kudlac, a professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University, said that race may have played a role in the media attention. Woods was black, and the three police officers killed were white.
“This case, particularly to his supporters, seem to be reminiscent an earlier time with frequent references to a lynching and mob justice,” he wrote in an email.
Additionally, a growing uneasiness with the death penalty could spark activism around executions. Support for the death penalty was 78% in 1996 and dipped to 54% by 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Executions and states with the capital system are in decline across the country, as well as overall support for capital punishment among the public, so cases like Woods’ that raise issues about the fairness of the system play right into that overall narrative,” Kudlac said.
Ntebo Mokuena, a 24-year-old community organizer in Washington D.C., is part of a growing national community of prison abolitionists.
“Even if he had committed the crime, I would not have supported his execution,” she said. She added that because “state violence” affects so many people, it makes sense that Woods’ death prompted a wider response outside of just Alabama.
“Our country has come far with a lot of states abolishing the death penalty, but the fact that someone who didn’t commit the crime was executed highlights and underscores the grave injustices black folk experience in the U.S.,” Mokuena said.