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Nathaniel Woods Didn’t Kill 3 Cops, Activists Claim — So Why Is His Execution Going Forward?

Nathaniel Woods, an Alabama death row inmate whose lethal injection is scheduled for Thursday evening, was convicted in the fatal shooting of three Birmingham police officers, despite not being the gunman.

By Dorian Geiger
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The execution of an Alabama death row inmate whose lethal injection is scheduled for Thursday evening appears to be going forward, despite an eleventh hour effort to halt the capital punishment. 

Nathaniel Woods, who prosecutors claimed masterminded the shooting of three Birmingham police officers at a drug house in 2004, is scheduled to be executed at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

But the condemned man’s lawyers, his family, and a throng of supporters, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, insist Woods never pulled the trigger — and shouldn’t be put to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

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Nearly 16 years ago, on June 17, 2004, Birmingham police, who were patrolling a neighborhood notorious for drug activity, stopped at Woods’ house to serve an arrest warrant on a misdemeanor assault charge. Police, who alleged that Woods served crack cocaine to more than 100 people daily, was detained by officers, but before he could be booked, his partner Kerry Spencer opened fire on them with an assault rifle.  

By the time the dust settled following the chaotic shootout, officers Charles Bennett, Harley Chisholm III, and Carlos Owen were dead. One of the slain cops, prosecutors claimed, sustained a “smoking hole in his face.”

Even though Woods wasn’t the triggerman, prosecutors were adamant the man, allegedly a known crack dealer who loathed police, had lured officers into the home knowing Spencer would gun them down. 

In the end, prosecutors secured a conviction and death sentence against Woods in 2005, despite a non-unanimous jury verdict. Although jurors voted 10-2 in favor of capital punishment, Alabama’s state law then allowed for a judge to impose a death sentence based on non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation. 

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“What makes it so significant and so disturbing in this case is that we now know that non-unanimous sentencing recommendations that result in death sentences are a red flag of innocence,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Oxygen.com.

The capital punishment analyst pointed to his organization's database study that logged the wrongful convictions of 35 death row inmates between 1973 and 2015 in Alabama, Florida, and Delaware — states where courts have permitted death sentences despite some jurors voting against it. In nearly all of those cases, data shows that jurors didn't vote unanimously, Dunham said. In 27 of 29 of those instances, for which the jury vote is known, at least one or more jurors had recommended life.

“There appears to be no doubt on either side that Nathaniel Woods did not kill anyone,” Esther Brown, executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, told Oxygen.com.

The 44-year-old’s supporters also allege his case is rife with police misconduct and judicial neglect. They claim his original defense lawyer misled Woods and later abandoned him. The death row inmate also turned down a plea deal of 20 to 25 years in prison, they allege, after being deceived into concluding he couldn’t be put to death when he wasn’t the triggerman. 

“The trial was a sham,” Dunham said. “There are very significant unresolved factual issues in the case. These issues should have been presented to and resolved in the judicial process, but they weren’t. The process was rotten from beginning to end and the governor has a chance to address that. We’ll have to see what she does.” 

Even Woods’ co-defendant and fellow death row inmate, Spencer, who shot the three Birmingham police officers, has proclaimed the man’s innocence.

"Nate is absolutely innocent," Spencer told CNN. "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."

A Change.org petition calling for the execution to be halted had gathered nearly 94,000 signatures as of this week.

Governor Kay Ivey’s office declined to comment on Thursday but confirmed Woods’ execution was scheduled to go ahead. 

The case has also caught the attention of prominent civil rights activists, who have also called on Ivey to stay Woods’ death penalty. 

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“Killing this African American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice,” Martin Luther King III wrote in a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. “Are you willing to allow a potentially innocent man to be executed?” 

As of Thursday afternoon, Woods’ family and his legal team were hopeful Alabama’s governor would intervene at the last minute. 

“He didn’t shoot anyone, he didn’t set anything up, he didn’t do anything,” the man’s younger sister Pamela Woods told Oxygen.com as she was about to step inside Holman Correctional Facility to visit her brother, potentially for the last time.

“Why not take the time, give a reprieve or a stay, just to allow some time to look over this case properly?” Pamela Woods added. “It needs to be looked over properly so that you’re not executing an innocent man.” 

Woods’ legal team called it an “impossibly difficult situation,” but said the 44-year-old remains optimistic as his execution looms.

“We are still hopeful that the governor will look at the facts objectively and decide that Nathaniel needs more time,” Lauren Faraino, Woods’ lawyer, told Oxygen.com hours ahead of the man’s scheduled execution.  

Earlier this week, Alabama’s Attorney General wrote the governor, urging her to uphold Woods’ capital punishment.

“The only injustice here is the death of three police officers in the line of duty,” Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote Ivey in a letter on March 2.   

Woods is the first person scheduled to be executed in Alabama this year. He could become the 67th prisoner put to death in the state since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976.