If all goes to plan, Alabama will execute Nathaniel Woods next week, a black man convicted in 2004 of murdering three officers at a dope house in Birmingham, making him the first prisoner executed in the state this year.
The thing is, Woods didn’t pull the trigger, a fact not disputed by the prosecution or Woods’ defense. But that doesn’t matter in Alabama, where accomplices to murder can not only receive murder convictions but be sentenced to death.
But the man who did shoot the officers, Kerry Spencer, recently told The Appeal that Woods is “100 percent innocent” of the murders. Woods’ current defense also claims that Woods’ constitutional rights were violated during his trial, with an inadequate defense leaving out crucial information to his case—like allegations of police misconduct.
As the Appeal reports, Spencer and Woods were convicted of killing Birmingham police officers Carlos “Curly” Owen, Harley Chisholm III, and Charles Bennett. The prosecution alleged that the three officers were killed as part of a plot, devised by Woods, to lure the police into the house and kill them. Spencer says the police came by multiple times that day, and that he killed the officers in self-defense after seeing Woods get assaulted by them, and seeing a gun pointed at him.
Spencer was tried and sentenced to death in 2005; Woods was tried and similarly convicted afterward. The prosecution’s case against Woods relied mostly on his alleged hatred of the police, as well as the testimony of another officer who was in the house at the time of the killings.
Woods’ attorneys say important information was left out at the trial, and that his lawyers at the time fed their client misinformation about a crucial plea deal that was offered:
From The Appeal:
After Spencer was sentenced to death, then-Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber offered Woods a plea deal that would have resulted in a 20- to 25-year prison sentence. But Woods refused the deal because his attorneys told him the state had to prove he pulled the trigger for him to be convicted of capital murder. This was not true under Alabama law, but Woods trusted his attorneys’ word, according to his 2017 habeas petition. “Mr. Woods did not accept this plea deal because he thought—with counsel’s encouragement—that he would be acquitted of these charges because the evidence would prove that he was not the shooter that day,” reads the filing.
It would prove to be a disastrous mistake. Because Woods was not arguing self-defense, [Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tommy Nail] refused to allow any evidence of police misconduct into the trial.
This evidence includes claims that Chisholm and Owen, the officers killed, were accused of profiting off the drug trade in Birmingham for years, taking bribes from dealers. Among those dealers was Tyran Cooper, who operated the drug house that Woods and Spencer were in on the day of the murders. Cooper, who was supposed to testify at Woods’ trial but did not, told The Appeal he owed the officers money. At Woods’ trial, Spencer testified that the officers had come to the house earlier in the day looking for Cooper.
Woods’ attorneys also allege that police pressured Woods’ then-girlfriend to give false testimony about his hatred for the police.
While there has always been agreement between prosecutors and Woods’ defenders that he isn’t the shooter, because of mistakes made by Woods’ previous attorneys (including missing crucial deadlines to file motions), he is scheduled to be executed before Spencer, who is still going through the appeals process.
“I think it’s fucked up,” Spencer told the news outlet about Woods’ upcoming execution. “Nate ain’t done nothing… [he] is actually 100 percent innocent. All he did that day was get beat up and he ran.”
Woods’ defense teams are slated to appear in court on his behalf on Wednesday in an attempt to delay his execution another 30 days. If they are not successful, Governor Kay Ivey would need to intervene by commuting his sentence. As the Appeal reports, the odds aren’t in the 44-year-old Woods’ favor: only one Alabama death row prisoner has ever been granted clemency since 1977.
Corrected Friday, February 28 at 10:45 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story said a jury had handed down a life sentence to Nathaniel Woods, which a judge overruled with the death penalty. This actually occurred during Kerry Spencer’s trial, when a jury deliberated for two and a half days to return a murder conviction. Woods’ jury deliberated for just two and a half hours, finding him guilty of murder and sentencing him to death.