Alabama Executes Non-Shooter in Police Killings
“Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent,” said his co-defendant, Kerry Spencer. “I know this to be fact because I’m the person that shot and killed all three of the officers.”
The story behind Woods’ execution involves corrupt police officers, police intimidation of witnesses, the ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and an Alabama law that allows a defendant to qualify for the death sentence as a result of his co-defendant’s murderous actions.
Early in this century, Woods and Spencer were in cahoots with Tyran “Bubba” Cooper. The three shared a Birmingham apartment from which they sold drugs. A “doorman” at the drug house testified at the 2005 trial that Woods and Spencer sold mostly crack cocaine, serving 100 to 150 people a day.
According to a 2012 affidavit from Cooper, back in 2002 he was paying $300 to $400 a week to police officers Carlos Owen and Harley Chisholm III “to protect my drug business and to make sure that no one else sold drugs in my area of Birmingham.”
Then in 2004, Cooper was charged with attempted murder. The officers decided to raise their price. Cooper had problems meeting that demand and began avoiding the officers. Whenever they came looking for him at the apartment, Woods got into arguments with them.
The officers went to the apartment to look for Cooper three times on June 17, 2004, the last a solo visit from Owen. The officer and Woods argued. Spencer said he and Woods then planned to wait until the officers went off-duty before heading out, in hopes of avoiding trouble.
The officers, however, had a different plan. They ran Woods’ name through a criminal database and learned he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. After a brief administrative delay, Owen and Harley, along with fellow officer Charles Robert Bennet and Sgt. Michael Collins, returned the same day to the apartment to serve the warrant.
Collins and Spencer gave differing accounts at trial of what happened next.
According to the sergeant, Woods surrendered to police and was standing upright and not yet handcuffed when Spencer fired on the four officers. Collins testified that he “knew it wasn’t Nathaniel” that fired the weapon, adding that Woods yelled, “I give up. I give up. Just don’t spray me with that mace.”
Spencer, however, said he awoke to a commotion in the apartment.
“When I woke up, I had the chopper on my lap,” he said, referring to the SKS automatic rifle police found outside the apartment after the shootings. “When I got up, I got up with the rifle. I’m in a crack house. We sell dope. This is what we do. You always have to have your gun on you at the ready if you’re inside that fucking apartment.”
Spencer saw police cars when he looked out the window, so he thought police were outside. When he exited the bedroom, he saw Woods holding his face in pain and thought he had been beaten by police. That’s when he said one of the officers pointed a weapon at him.
“When I looked to the side, there was two police officers trying to train their guns on me, so I opened fire with the fucking rifle,” Spencer said. “I wasn’t trying to get shot period. I got a rifle in my hand. They’re going to shoot me. You point a gun at me, bitch, I’m fixing to shoot.”
According to Attorney General Steve Marshall (R), Woods called to the police outside, “If you come in here, we’ll fuck you up,” adding as he tried to escape and saw Collins outside, “There’s someone else. We got another one right here.”
Spencer opened fire, hitting Collins in the thigh as he sought cover and called for back-up. When help arrived, Bennett was found outside the front door, shot in the head. Chisholm and Owen were found inside. Both had been shot in the back through their bulletproof vests. All three officers died.
Spencer was found hiding in a neighbor’s attic. Woods was apprehended while “sitting on a nearby porch, apparently ‘very relaxed’ and carrying two .22 caliber bullets in his pocket,” Marshall wrote in a letter to Gov. Kay Ivey (R).
“Although Woods was not the shooter, he was hardly an innocent bystander,” the Attorney General added.
“Nate is absolutely innocent. That man didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody just like I didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody that day, period,” he said. “Nate is a good guy. Nate ain’t no killer. The reason Nate was down there in the dope house with us is because he needed money.”
In fact, Spencer said, Woods was so soft-hearted that he had to be supervised because he would give drugs away for free.
Nevertheless, the jury in his 2005 trial found Woods guilty of four counts of capital murder: three counts of intentionally killing a police officer in the line of duty and one count of killing two or more people while pursuant to a scheme or course of conduct. The vote was 10-2 in favor of the death penalty.
But his post-conviction attorneys noted several problems with the case.
Woods’ girlfriend had testified that he made comments demonstrating hatred of police, but she then tried to recant at a pretrial hearing, saying “I made that up. I told y’all what you wanted to hear.” Woods’ appeal also alleged she was threatened with a parole violation if she refused to testify against him.
Cooper did not testify at trial, alleging police threatened him into silence. The trial court also refused to allow evidence of police misconduct to be presented at trial.
Leading up to trial, Woods was appointed – despite obvious conflict of interest – the same attorney as Spencer. That lawyer missed filing deadlines and prematurely presented claims, which barred their later consideration after supporting evidence was developed. On the eve of trial, an attorney with no experience in capital cases was assigned as Woods’ attorney.
The theme that Woods hated cops was used extensively during his appeals. As evidence, the state presented a song he had “apparently written” with lyrics that expressed his lack of remorse. The song begins:
Seven execution-style murders.
I have no remorse because I’m the fucking murderer.
While the jury bought the state’s argument, the lyrics actually come from the song High Powered on Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic.
Prosecutors knew Woods was not the shooter, and they offered him a plea deal for 20 to 25 years. His trial lawyer wrongly informed Woods that he could not be convicted of capital murder as an accomplice. After he was convicted and then appealed, the state argued there was no evidence that a plea offer was ever made. In fact, once he turned down the plea offer, prosecutors claimed at trial that Woods, who was Black, was the mastermind of the plot to kill the three white police officers
“[Woods’] case has just been so mishandled that it’s just a shame that we’re at the point of executing a man who was not the triggerman, whose case has so many issues that no court has considered,” said J.D. Lloyd, Woods’ third appellate attorney.
As Woods’ execution date neared, advocates made efforts to stop the death warrant from being carried out. However, the Supreme Court denied his final appeal. Woods v. Stewart, 140 S. Ct. 67 (2019)
Martin Luther King, III, son of the slain civil rights icon, and Bart Starr, Jr., whose father was a legendary quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, each wrote letters to Gov. Ivey asking her to grant Woods clemency.
“Simply being in the wrong place where someone else shows up and then starts firing at police officers is not a reason to assign culpability to someone,” Starr wrote.
“Under Alabama law, someone who helps kill a police officer is just as guilty as the person who directly commits the crime,” she said. “Since 1983, Alabama has executed two individuals for being an accomplice to capital murder.”
In other words, that’s just how justice is administered in Alabama.
Sources: CNN, theroot.com, deathpenaltyinfo.org