We can be almost sure that there is someone in America’s past who has been wrongfully executed. The law is not infallible. But Nathaniel Woods’ case is different. The state of Alabama and everyone involved in his death knew he didn’t kill Carlos Owen, Harley A. Chisholm III, and Charles R. Bennett, three Birmingham, Ala., police officers. They conceded that point time and time again. Even the jury hearing the case did not come to a unanimous decision on whether he should receive the death penalty.
They killed him anyway.
“Under Alabama law, someone who helps kill a police officer is just as guilty as the person who directly commits the crime,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. “Since 1983, Alabama has executed two individuals for being an accomplice to capital murder.”
That’s right. Her Montel Jordan-like rationale for ending a man’s life was simply: “This is how we do it.”
Nathaniel Woods is a legend in Birmingham.
He is not a hero nor is he heralded in any way. Long before he became a national story and a martyr for the crusade against capital punishment, he was the symbol of a broken criminal justice system and corrupt law enforcement officers.
Nate Woods is not innocent. A jury convicted him of murder. There is no objective evidence that he planned the crime. In fact, there is only one thing that every person, even the people who executed him, can agree on:
Nate Woods didn’t kill anyone.
According to court records, locals and a mountain of evidence, Woods was a drug dealer who was in cahoots with crooked cops. Or, as NBC reports more professionally: “Two of the officers who were killed were later accused by another drug dealer at Woods’ home of being involved in a corrupt scheme that protected dealers in exchange for money…”
Until Woods allegedly stopped paying them.
On June 17, 2004, police officers obtained a misdemeanor warrant for Woods’ arrest. Four police officers went to Woods’ apartment to take him into custody. When they arrived, they found Kerry Spencer, who would also be convicted of capital murder.
After the officers arrived, and several had entered the home, Spencer opened fire. Owen, Chisholm, and Bennett were dead when help arrived, while Collins was suffering from gunshot wounds. “Each (of the three officers) had died from multiple gunshot wounds,” according to the state’s motion asking for an execution date.
“Responding officers found an SKS assault rifle in the grass outside, a handgun in the bathroom, and two long guns in a bedroom. The officers’ bulletproof vests had been pierced, typical of damage sustained by high-powered rifle fire,” the motion states.
“When Woods was located, he was sitting with other men on the porch of (a neighbor’s) house nearby, apparently ‘very relaxed.’ He gave his full name and was found to have two .22 caliber bullets in his pocket. Kerry Spencer was eventually pulled out of (the neighbor’s) attic,” the motion states. A “doorman” at the drug house testified Woods and Spencer sold mostly crack cocaine to 100-150 customers per day, according to court records.
Spencer testified that Woods had nothing to do with the killing. Michael Collins, the only surviving officer who was at the scene, said he “knew it wasn’t Nathaniel” that fired the weapon, testifying that Woods yelled: “I give up. I give up. Just don’t spray me with that mace,”
But under Alabama’s felony murder rule if someone kills a person during the commission of a crime, their accomplice is just as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger. Woods claims his attorneys never informed him that he could be convicted of murder even if he proved that he didn’t kill anyone. For example, in 2018, an Alabama judge sentenced 16-year-old Lakeith Smith to 65 years in prison after his friend was killed during a botched burglary. When Smith was 15, officers confronted him and his friends during an alleged break-in and opened fire. Even though a police officer pulled the trigger, prosecutors charged Smith with the murder.
This is how they do it.
Woods assumed he was in the clear when prosecutors didn’t even argue that he shot the officers, only offering evidence that Woods hated the police. His appeal lawyers even argued that there was no “plot” to kill the officers—that Spencer acted impulsively—Spencer even testified as such. Alabama is also the only place in America where a defendant can receive a death penalty without a unanimous verdict by a jury, another fact Woods says he wasn’t told. So imagine Woods’ surprise when a jury handed down a 10-2 verdict to put him to death.
When Woods appealed his verdict and asked for clemency, one of the arguments used against him was his “hatred for the police.” As evidence, they presented the lyrics to an original song he had “apparently written” with lyrics confessing to his lack of remorse for the slayings. Woods’ angry song begins:
Seven execution-style murders.
I have no remorse because I’m the fucking murderer.
That court bought it.
I, however, immediately recognized the lyrics were from “High Powered,” a song on Dr. Dre’s 1992 album, The Chronic.
Woods’ family begged Gov. Ivey to commute his sentence to life in prison. An advocate delivered a letter to Ivey’s office on Thursday, hours before he was scheduled to die, calling the officers’ deaths an “unimaginable, senseless tragedy” while noting that there were “ so many flaws and questions with his trial that we cannot move forward with executing him.” The U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on Thursday evening while Woods’ attorneys filed another appeal arguing that he had ineffective counsel.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall denied the appeal immediately.
“There is a last-minute movement afoot to ‘save’ cop-killer Nathaniel Woods from his just punishment,” Marshall said in a statement. “The message of that movement is encapsulated by the headline of a press release sent out today, which declared: ‘Surrendered and Innocent Man Set to Die.’ That headline contains two falsehoods and one truth. The falsehoods are the descriptors ‘surrendered’ and ‘innocent’: neither apply whatsoever to Nathaniel Woods, whose actions directly caused the deaths of three policemen and injury to another. The truth is ‘set to die’.
The Alabama Department of Corrections served Woods his last meal—sweet potatoes, spinach, a chicken patty, a chicken leg quarter, cooked apples, fries, two oranges, and an orange-flavored drink. ADOC Public Information Specialist Samantha Rose Woods says Woods ate just one bite of the chicken leg quarter and nothing else, AL.com reports.
At 8:37 p.m. the warden read Woods’ death warrant. Three minutes later, Woods began mouthing words and making the sign of his Muslim faith. He jerked his arm against the restraints and stared directly into the viewing room.
And then he lay down and died.
At 9:01 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, the state of Alabama had officially executed 43-year-old Nathaniel Woods for not murdering anyone.
This is how they do it.