On June 17, 2004, three police officers were shot dead at a drug house on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a ghastly scene. Officer Charles Bennett lay on his back near the front door with a bullet wound in his face; the semi-automatic rifle that had inflicted it lay strewn nearby. Inside, officers Carlos “Curly” Owen and Harley Chisholm III were sprawled out on the kitchen floor.
One officer, Michael Collins, had run away and survived. He told his colleagues at the Birmingham Police Department that Kerry Spencer and Nathaniel Woods, lifelong friends who had been dealing and using drugs at the pea green one-story house in the Ensley section of the city, were responsible for the killings. Spencer was the shooter but he had not acted alone, police alleged. Woods was charged as an accomplice; in Alabama that’s a capital offense punishable by death.
Woods, Jefferson County prosecutors told the jury at his 2005 trial, hated law enforcement and had lured the officers into the house so Spencer could kill them. Though he did not fire the fatal shots, Woods had masterminded the plan, making his actions as equally significant as Spencer’s, argued assistant district attorney Mara Sirles. “He wanted them to be fish in a barrel,” she said during her closing argument.
Prosecutors called witnesses who testified they’d heard Woods talking about his disgust for the police. They called a so-called handwriting expert to tell the jury that Woods had written lyrics to a song by rapper Dr. Dre on a piece of paper in his county jail cell that referred to the police as “pigs.” They called Collins, who recounted the events that unfolded at the house on the day of the shooting. And they called the victims’ widows, who said they wanted Woods to be sentenced to die.
The defense’s most valuable piece of evidence was Spencer’s testimony from his own trial earlier that year, in which he was sentenced to death for his role in the shootings. He testified that the officers had harassed the residents of the house that day. They were attacking Woods when he shot them, Spencer said, and he had feared for both of their lives.
At the end of the highly publicized trial, Woods was convicted of capital murder and the jury recommended a death sentence by a vote of 10–2. The judge upheld the recommendation and Woods was sent to join Spencer on death row. Alabama is scheduled to execute Woods on March 5.
Over the past decade, Woods’s attorneys have collected evidence that they say shows that neither Woods nor Spencer plotted to kill the officers. The shooting, they argue, had been brought on by years of police misconduct involving a bribery scheme. They’ve alleged that key witnesses falsely testified or didn’t testify at all as part of undisclosed deals with the police. And they’ve alleged that the performance of Woods’s trial attorneys—neither of whom had tried a capital murder case before—was deficient.
None of this alleged evidence has ever been considered by Alabama courts because the first two appellate attorneys assigned to Woods, the last line of defense between him and the execution chamber, made strategic mistakes in raising issues with the case and missed crucial deadlines to file their appeals. These errors devastated his chances to win his appeals and have new evidence heard by the courts, J.D. Lloyd, Woods’s third and final appellate attorney, told The Appeal. To date, Attorney General Steve Marshall has successfully cited these failures to block any further consideration of Woods’s death sentence.
“It’s a travesty,” said Lloyd, who was appointed to the case in 2017. “His case has just been so mishandled and 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.”
When asked if he would like to respond to a list of the allegations provided by The Appeal, a spokesperson for the Birmingham Police Department replied in an email, “No thanks.”
Barring any interventions from the courts or Governor Kay Ivey, Woods, 44, will be the first person Alabama executes this year and the 67th during the modern death penalty era. While judges, prosecutors, and the defense all acknowledge that Spencer was the triggerman, questions about Woods’s culpability and the events leading up to the killings remain as his execution date approaches.
On the day of the shooting, police visited the house three times, according to testimony from Woods’s trial. Spencer testified that the first time, Owen went to the house alone between 6 and 8 a.m. He showed up again later that morning, Spencer testified, looking for “Bubba,” otherwise known as Tyran Cooper, a drug dealer who ran his business from the house. Soon, Collins and Chisholm arrived for backup.
Collins testified that he arrived to find Woods yelling obscenities at the officers and telling them to get off the property. The officers did not make any arrests, but they were upset by his behavior so they ran Woods’s name through a database in search of outstanding warrants, according to Collins. (Collins declined an interview with The Appeal through a Birmingham Police Department spokesperson.)
Collins said the search returned a misdemeanor arrest warrant but the officers didn’t serve it right away because of administrative issues. Later that afternoon, Collins said they returned to the house with the warrant. That warrant was never recovered from the scene, according to trial testimony, and a bystander testified that he didn’t see any of the officers holding the piece of paper. Chisholm went to talk to Woods through the back screen door, Collins said. Woods questioned the validity of the warrant, but relented after the officers entered.
Collins testified that he entered the house after Chisholm and Owen to find Woods telling them he gave up and asking not to be pepper sprayed. Woods had not been handcuffed and was “upright,” Collins said. He testified that seconds later, Spencer opened fire.
Spencer testified that he was napping on the couch after a long night of heavy drug use when he was awakened by the commotion and grabbed his SKS rifle. He walked out and saw Woods come out of the kitchen holding his face “like he was in pain,” he said. Spencer turned around and saw a gun pointed at him, he testified, and started shooting. “I didn’t mean to kill nobody, man,” he said on the witness stand. “You know, this was a decision I had to make to stay alive or be shot, and I did what I had to do.”
Spencer also testified that he saw Woods had been sprayed with mace and had a “knot” on his forehead. As he left the house, Spencer testified that he took one of the officers’ guns because he wasn’t sure if the officer was alive and didn’t want to be shot in the back. He threw his rifle on the front lawn and went to a house across the street.
Asked whether he and Woods had conspired to kill Owen, Chisolm, and Bennett, Spencer told The Appeal in a telephone interview last week, “There was no plan to kill the police.”
Spencer said Woods was startled by the sudden shooting, escaped out the back bathroom window, and ran across the street to that same house, where police quickly found him sitting on the front steps. Spencer was in the attic.
“We were scared as shit,” Spencer said in the call. “It was a fucked up situation. It was the scariest moment of my life. We could’ve died.”
According to court documents, officers Chisholm and Owen had a long history of profiting off Ensley’s booming drug trade. It was widely known that the officers “had a reputation for corruption and violence” and collected payments from drug dealers in the neighborhood in exchange for helping their businesses thrive, alleges a 2017 federal petition for habeas corpus filed on Woods’s behalf. This claim was supported by a 2012 affidavit from Cooper stating that he started paying Chisholm and Owen between $300 and $400 per week in 2002 “to protect my drug business and to make sure that no one else sold drugs in my area of Birmingham.”
The payments dropped off after Cooper was charged with attempted murder in April 2004 and the officers raised their price. After that, Cooper said it became more difficult to meet each payment deadline and the two police officers got into arguments with Woods, who stayed at the house that Cooper operated out of, if they didn’t receive their money. The affidavit also included claims that the police had threatened Cooper into silence. Following the shooting, Cooper said a Birmingham police detective told his ex-wife that he would “bury” Cooper if he cooperated with Spencer’s defense and testified about the payoffs, according to the filing.
Cooper did not testify at either Spencer’s or Woods’s trials. Spencer’s attorneys relied on Cooper’s word that he would show up to testify, but when it became clear that he would not, they unsuccessfully tried to issue a last-minute subpoena, according to Spencer’s 2016 federal petition for habeas corpus. Last week, Cooper confirmed the contents of his 2012 affidavit in a telephone call with The Appeal and said he stayed away from the house while the officers were on duty because he had fallen behind on his payments in the week before the shooting. “I feel like it could’ve been avoided,” he said. “I feel like if I was there it would’ve never happened.”
Spencer was the first to go to trial. Without Cooper’s testimony, his attorneys lost a key witness who could have testified to Chisholm and Owen’s alleged involvement in the bribery scheme and the power that gave them over the residents of the Ensley house. Spencer’s attorneys argued self-defense. On the morning of the shooting, Spencer testified that the two officers made death threats to him and Woods. Chisholm, he said, told them that he would be back with a body bag for each of them.
He told the jury that the officers were “always fucking with us” and had attempted to sneak into the house. On one occasion, Spencer testified that Woods caught Owen on a video camera trying to break in through the window.
The jury recommended that Spencer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tommy Nail overrode that recommendation and sentenced him to die. (Judges could override a jury’s recommendation until the state abolished the practice in 2017.)
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, Nail refused to allow any evidence of police misconduct into the trial.
In the 137-page petition, Lloyd, Woods’s current appellate attorney, outlined several other allegations he said proved his client’s innocence. Among these, he charged that Nail was biased toward the prosecution, pointing out his statement during jury selection that, “You’d have to be living on another planet not to think there might not be some culpability,” according to the petition.
Lloyd also alleged that Woods’s girlfriend who was staying with him at the Ensley house, Marquita McClure, was threatened into cooperating with the prosecution because she faced jail time for violating her probation. Her testimony during trial furthered the prosecution’s theory that Woods hated the police and had planned the shooting with Spencer. She told the jury that Woods had made several incendiary comments about the police but conceded she didn’t take them seriously. Her testimony was fraught with unreliability. At a 2004 hearing before the trial, she testified that she lied to investigators about Woods’s comments that he wanted to kill the police. “I made that up. I told y’all what you wanted to hear,” she said at the time, according to an article in the Gadsden Times. She also testified during that hearing that officers had ripped the screen door off the hinges when they entered the Ensley house with the alleged warrant.
Despite the evidence calling into question the reliability of Woods’s conviction, his chances of winning relief have been haunted by the mistakes of his appellate attorneys. In Alabama, there is no statewide public defense system, so the quality of Woods’s representation was determined by whoever was willing to take on his case.
First, he was appointed an attorney who represented his co-defendant, Spencer, up until the eve of his trial. He continued to represent Woods even though there was a conflict of interest, missed deadlines without telling him, and “abandoned” him, according to the 2017 petition. According to Lloyd, the biggest blow to Woods’s case came when that attorney prematurely raised claims without sufficient evidence to support them, essentially blocking them from being heard in the future. Then, his next set of attorneys failed to challenge Woods’s conviction in the state courts, all of which barred him from ever having his case seriously considered.
Woods’s sister, Pamela Woods, told The Appeal that she has tried for years to retain private counsel for her brother but her family was never able to afford the fees, sometimes as high as $200,000. “Now my brother is scheduled to be executed based on the negligence of an attorney,” she said.
Last month, Woods’s attorneys filed a federal civil rights complaint in a bid to delay his execution for 30 days. That lawsuit alleges that Alabama is discriminating against death row prisoners who did not choose death by nitrogen hypoxia, a new execution method that the state authorized in 2018 but has yet to implement. Executions are suspended for the people who chose that method because Alabama has not determined a way to carry them out. The state is “targeting” people who did not choose to die by nitrogen gas for “speedier executions,” argues the Jan. 23 complaint. Woods’s defense team will argue their claims in court on Wednesday. If the courts do not rule in his favor, Woods’s fate lies with Governor Ivey, who could commute his sentence. The odds are not good; only one Alabama death row prisoner has been granted clemency in the entirety of the modern death penalty era.
Ivey has yet to receive Woods’s clemency petition to review. A spokesperson for Marshall, the attorney general, declined to comment on Woods’s execution. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, who ran on a reformist platform, also declined to comment.
Speaking to The Appeal, Spencer was aghast that Woods is set to be executed before him. His representation has been slightly better over the years, so his appeals are still pending in federal court. “I think it’s fucked up,” he said of Woods’s upcoming execution. “Nate ain’t done nothing. … My n**** is actually 100 percent innocent. All he did that day was get beat up and he ran.”