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Arkansas Execution Updates, Debate Dominate Twitter

The Arkansas executions quickly took over Twitter Monday evening, as those watching the events furiously tweeted rage, regret, sorrow and celebration in 140 characters or less.

Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty activist who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” tweeted all evening about seeking a last-minute miracle, ultimately resigning to the fact that the executions would take place and asking for the victims’ families to be included in prayers.

A Catholic group that opposes the death penalty kept up a steady stream of tweets all evening from the account @CMNEndtheDP referring to the executions as a “shameful, mismanaged fiasco” and calling for mercy.  “Marcel Williams experienced brutal sexual and physical violence as a child. He is not 'the worst of the worst.' #ARexecutions,” the group tweeted.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has received the brunt of activists’ anger for several weeks, did not answer directly some of the explicit messages on Twitter but offered up Psalm 8:1 — “O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens!” to which dozens of followers replied with “Thou Shall Not Kill.”

Some Twitter users compared the executions to abortion, such as @mastoni who wrote “If you truly value life, you cannot pick and choose.  The unborn and the condemned are living flesh. #ARexecutions #abortionismurder.”

State Representative Rebecca Petty, whose 12-year-old daughter was raped and murdered in 1999, re-tweeted what she deemed the tweet of the night, a joke from @IrishDaveE about the traditional last meal offered to inmates. “Why not a nice salad, grilled chicked or fish & side of fruit?! #JunkFood #ARexecutions.”

Others also expressed gladness around the executions.  “He raped & killed a mother in front of her child and almost killed the child, but he should be treated humanely because feels #ARexecutions,” wrote @RD_MOLONLABE, referring to Jack Jones, convicted of rape and murder in the mid-1990s.

“I really get confused why being against the death penalty automatically means that you’ve condoned their crimes. #ARExecutions,” wrote @Adam_McDuffie, whose Twitter account indicates that he’s a theology student.

In fact, Mary Phillips whom Jack Jones raped and killed (and whose daughter he beat, causing brain damage), became a hashtag, #MaryPhillips. @OzarkLady wrote "Remembering #MaryPhillips $ the FL woman raped & killed by Jack Jones. #ARexecutions," while @kikgab17 wrote, "I don't care at all what they inject #Arkansas Murderer Jack Jones with... It could be 'Shea Moisture'... Dead is dead." (Shea Moisture was a reference to a shampoo commercial that caused Twitter's other controversy of the evening.)

Many Arkansas responses on Twitter and other social media likely agreed in sentiment with @RD_MOLONLABE, though they may not have hashtagged them #ARexecutions, the go-to search term for tweets about the executions. A recent poll by Hendrix College and Talk Business & Politics put approval for the death penalty upwards of 60% here. In California, voters narrowly approved a measure last November that improves conditions for carrying out executions, while in the same election voters narrowly voted down an effort to abolish the death penalty.

Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Reporters from around the state, country and world used Twitter to update their audiences on Arkansas’s new status as the first state to carry out a double execution since 2000.  Little Rock's KUAR-89.1 reporter Jacob Kauffman shared a pic from the moment he was glared at and shooed away by Corrections Department spokesperson Solomon Graves during the wait for word on Marcel Williams’ execution.

“This Arkansan is absolutely heartbroken.  What a dark, dark couple of weeks,” tweeted @JennylovesCam.

While the top trends on Twitter move on quickly, many social media users expect the debate over the death penalty to continue online as much as it does in the offline world.  “The fight to stop #ARexecutions and end the death penalty will continue tomorrow and every day until it is fully abolished,” Prejean promised at the end of a long night on Twitter.

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team. Her stories can be found on the airwaves, and social media.
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