Alabama has executed Nathaniel Woods despite looming doubts about his culpability as the mastermind of a plan to kill three Birmingham police officers, allegations of police misconduct, and claims of deeply flawed legal representation.
Woods was declared dead on Thursday at 9:01 p.m., 15 minutes after the first of three lethal injection drugs were administered, according to the Montgomery Advertiser, which had a reporter present. He had no final words, according to the newspaper.
An hour earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay it had imposed on his execution after it declined to review his case. None of the justices dissented. Governor Kay Ivey had denied Woods’s request for clemency shortly before that, clearing the way for Alabama to execute him.
Woods, 43, was the first person executed by Alabama this year and 67th in the modern death penalty era.
“Alabama executed an innocent man and I think everyone involved—the governor, the attorney general, the DOC commissioner—everyone knew it,” Lauren Faraino, the attorney who handled Woods’s clemency petition, told The Appeal.
Woods’ sister, Pamela Woods, told The Appeal on Friday that Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall “chose to ignore the facts in order to murder” her brother. She vowed to continue fighting for the “justice in Nathaniel’s death that he was tragically robbed of in his life.”
Woods was convicted of capital murder in 2005 in connection with the deaths of three Birmingham police officers the year before. In a statement released after the execution, Ivey said Woods was an “integral participant” in the “intentional murder of these officers. … Someone who helps kill a police officer is just as guilty as the person who directly commits the crime.” She noted he was the third person the state had executed as an accomplice.
In the minutes leading up to Ivey’s decision to allow Woods’s execution to proceed, Kimberly Chisholm Simmons, the sister of one of the officers killed in the shooting, attempted to reach Ivey to tell her she did not support killing Woods. She said she was told Ivey was in a meeting. “I do not think that Nathaniel is guilty of murder,” Simmons wrote in a statement provided by Faraino. “Please do not move forward with the hasty decision to execute Nathaniel. My conscience will not let me live with this if he dies. I beg you to have mercy on him.”
Woods was sentenced to death under Alabama’s accomplice law. That law permits prosecutors to seek death for people alleged to have assisted in committing a capital crime, even if they did not carry out the killing themselves. Though the prosecution acknowledged that Woods did not fire the fatal shots, or have a gun, prosecutors argued he was equally as culpable as the confessed shooter, Kerry Spencer.
They theorized that Woods hated the police and lured the officers into the house so Spencer could shoot them. According to testimony from the lone surviving officer, Michael Collins, the police were at the house to serve Woods a misdemeanor arrest warrant. It was their third visit to the home that day, according to testimony. Collins testified that when he entered the house, Woods had surrendered and was pleading for the officers to not pepper spray him.
A jury recommended a death sentence by a vote of 10-2 and the judge upheld that sentence. Alabama is the only remaining state where someone can be sentenced to die by a nonunanimous jury verdict.
Woods has always said that he never devised a plot to kill the police and was instead in the wrong place at the wrong time. During Spencer’s own 2005 capital murder trial, which also resulted in a death sentence, Spencer testified that he shot the officers instincitively after being awoken from a nap and seeing a gun pointed at him. He also testified that he saw Woods had been pepper sprayed and was holding his face “like he was in pain.” Spencer has maintained Woods’s innocence, telling The Appeal last month that Woods is “100 percent innocent. All he did that day was get beat up and he ran.” Woods was startled by the shooting and escaped out of a bathroom window, he said. Spencer has said he was in fear for his life when he opened fire.
The events surrounding the shooting and Woods’s conviction have long been tainted by allegations of police misconduct and corruption. Last month, two state witnesses signed affidavits stating that they were threatened into cooperating with the prosecution. One woman, who testified during a pretrial hearing that she lied to appease the prosecution, said a police detective threatened to take her child away if she did not help advance the prosecution’s theory that Woods hated the police and planned to shoot them. Another witness said he had been coached by a “cold case investigator” who coerced him into falsely testifying that he did not witness one of the officers pepper spray Woods.
And in 2012, Tyran Cooper, a man who ran his drug business out of the home where the officers were shot, signed an affidavit stating that the officers protected his business in exchange for payment. In an interview last month, he told The Appeal that he had fallen behind on payments in the week before the shooting. Cooper also stated in the affidavit that a police detective threatened to “bury” him if he cooperated with the defense and testified about the bribery scheme.
A Birmingham Police Department spokesperson has declined to comment on those allegations to The Appeal.
Additionally, Woods alleged that he had been provided with inadequate representation since his trial, including court-appointed trial attorneys who advised him against taking a plea deal that would have resulted in a 20- to 25-year sentence. The attorneys, who never had tried a capital case, erroneously told him that the prosecution had to prove he was the shooter to be convicted of capital murder, according to court documents filed on his behalf. His appellate attorneys missed appeal deadlines, abandoned him, and made strategic mistakes that effectively barred the courts from considering his claims, wrote his fourth attorney in a 2017 court filing. In a letter to a federal court this week, Woods wrote that his fourth attorney, who represented him in the three years up to the execution, “rarely visited or contacted” him. He added, “After I received notice of my execution date, I did not hear from him.”
In recent weeks, Faraino, the clemency attorney, launched a campaign to raise awareness about Woods’s case. She also sought out witnesses who had never before been interviewed by Woods’s defense attorneys over the years. That campaign, #SaveNate, collected 168,000 letters to Ivey asking her to stop the execution.
On Friday morning, Faraino recounted a story that Woods’s father told her on Sunday at a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The anecdote, she said, had taken on newfound significance with Alabama’s execution of Woods.“He started telling me about this time where Nate was raking up some leaves in the front yard and when they were raking, he accidentally raked up a snake in the middle of the pile,” she said. “His dad reaches to kill the snake and Nate says, ‘Why would you kill something that’s innocent?’”