An Alabama man convicted of fatally shooting three police officers in 2004 was executed on Thursday night—despite last-minute legal drama and pleas for clemency from family members, high-profile activists, and even a victim’s sister, who all say he shouldn’t be put to death since he didn’t pull the trigger.
Nathaniel Woods, 42, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2005 for the June 17, 2004, killing of three Birmingham police officers. Authorities said Woods and his roommate, Kerry Spencer, were dealing crack cocaine from their home when the three officers—Carlos Owen, Harley Chisolm, and Charles Bennett—were murdered while trying to serve an arrest warrant.
Although Spencer admitted he was the actual gunman who shot at the officers several times, prosecutors argued during the 2005 trial that Woods was also responsible for their deaths because he “conspired” with his roommate in the grisly slaying.
“He’s 100 percent innocent,” Pamela Woods, his sister, said outside the doors of the Alabama State Capitol Wednesday evening in a last-minute plea for a reprieve. “Let him go, or give us time to have the courts review his case.”
Local reporters said he was executed just after 9 p.m. CT.
It came despite a late twist on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court entered a temporary stay just before the execution was set to begin at 6 p.m. CT—a move fairly common in capital punishment cases—while the justices reviewed a last-minute request for clemency by Woods’ legal team.
A little over an hour later, the Supreme Court lifted the stay and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement declining to intervene, officially ending any final chance for Woods’ execution to be repealed.
“Governor Ivey does not presently intend to exercise her powers of commutation or reprieve in this case,” the statement said.
According to AL.com, Woods was visited by family members Thursday afternoon, including his daughter and sister. His last meal was chicken, sweet potatoes, spinach, cooked apples, fries, two oranges, and an orange-flavored drink.
While many had called for a stay of execution, Woods became the 67th person to be put to death by the state of Alabama since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. According to state law, being an accomplice to murder is punishable by death.
The jury that sentenced Woods to death was not unanimous in their verdict, which has troubled his supporters and death penalty opponents.
“We do feel really bad for what happened that day. We don’t wish that on anyone, for their family to have to deal with that,” his sister said Wednesday. “It was very unfortunate that the shooter did what he did. But the main point is that Nathaniel had no parts in those actions of another man, Kerry Spencer.”
Family members, activists, and even Spencer had argued that Woods’ case was distorted by police misconduct and unfairly prosecuted. Woods’ supporters protested for days outside the state Capitol and several celebrities became involved, urging Ivey to intervene in the case.
In a letter to Ivey, Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that the 42-year-old’s execution would only show that “Alabama has not learned from the past and that they have not learned from the civil rights movement of the 1960s that focused on justice and a respect for human rights.”
“Killing this African-American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice,” he wrote. “I urge you to grant him a reprieve. We must allow the time to accurately review the new evidence.”
On Thursday, rapper T.I. also voiced his continued support for Woods, urging his followers to show their support on a website dedicated to “saving Nate” and encouraging them to “send a letter” to Ivey to “convince her to spare Nate’s life.”
“This ain’t about race or politics... this is about fair and decent human beings standing up for what’s right,” T.I. said in another Instagram post. “Love & Light to all who deserve it… Especially Nathan Woods.”
Kim Kardashian West, who has campaigned for the halted execution of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed, also offered her support, telling her Twitter followers Thursday evening “Nate will die for a crime another man confessed to and says Nate had nothing to do with. My heart and prayers are with Nate and his family and all the advocates who worked tirelessly to save his life.”
Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) weighed in late on Thursday, saying he’d reached out to Ivey, urging her to delay the execution.
Among those shocked with Ivey’s decision to not stop the execution was Chisholm’s sister, who asked the governor to “reconsider her decision” because there “is no harm in allowing more time for the courts to investigate.”
“I do not think Nathaniel is guilty of murder,” the sister said. “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.”
In a handwritten open letter released this week by one of Woods’ attorneys, Spencer insisted that Woods is “100 percent innocent”—because he alone “shot and killed all three of the officers.”
“Nathaniel Woods doesn’t even deserve to be incarcerated, let alone executed,” Spencer wrote. “I pray that my words don’t fall on blind eyes or deaf ears. Don’t allow another innocent man to be executed if you can do something to put a stop to it. This is my most fervent prayer.”
Spencer has maintained he acted in self-defense by shooting the officers, claiming they assaulted Woods and pointed a gun to his face. He was also sentenced to death, but his execution has yet to be scheduled.
Prosecutors acknowledged during Woods’ 2005 trial that it was Spencer who opened fire on the officers when they showed up to arrest Woods. But they said Woods lured them into a corner in their home, providing the opportunity for the ambush, and threatened one officer to “take off that badge or I will fuck you up,” according to court records.
“They wanted them trapped,” prosecutor Mara Sirles said in her closing argument, claiming that Woods kept Owen’s gun as a trophy. “They wanted them in close range. Nathaniel Woods was the bait. Kerry Spencer was the hook.”
The defense maintained that the shooting wasn’t premeditated but a terrible knee-jerk reaction by Spencer. Defense attorney Cynthia Umstead also stressed in her closing argument that Spencer, who confessed to police hours after the shooting, always stated that Woods had nothing to do with the crime. “Nobody, nobody, nobody says Nathaniel Woods did one... thing to kill those police officers,” Umstead said.
Both Woods and Spencer testified during the trial, telling the court that the three officers had come to the home several times before looking for another roommate, Tryan “Bubba” Cooper, who dealt drugs there.
According to a 2012 affidavit, Cooper admitted paying off officers Owen and Chisholm for two years “to protect my drug business and make sure that no one else sold drugs in my area of Birmingham.” But after he was charged with attempted murder in April 2004, Cooper said the officers raised their price, which he could not afford, and he began avoiding the house to avoid a confrontation, the court document states.
“I feel like if I was there it would’ve never happened,” Cooper told The Appeal.
The jury did not reach a unanimous verdict, but Woods was still able to be sentenced to death under Alabama law, and his legal team’s appeal attempts proved unsuccessful. Citing underlying corruption involving the officers who received $400 a week for two years from Cooper and the fact that both roommates did not intentionally plan the deadly shooting, Woods’ legal team tried several times to argue he did not receive a fair trial.
The surviving officer, Birmingham Police Sgt. Mike Collins, even testified on Woods’ behalf, saying he heard Woods give up and say “don’t spray me with that mace” after they arrived to serve him with the misdemeanor warrant, the 2016 court appeals records state.
Over the past decade, Woods’ attorneys had also collected evidence to support their claim the trial was marred by corruption.
According to The Appeal, two witnesses—whom prosecutors relied on to make their case that Woods “lured” the officers into the house the day of the shooting—signed affidavits last month admitting they were coached by a “memory expert” before the trial. One of the witnesses said police threatened to take away her child if she refused to testify.
“I stand here speaking on his behalf to say that what happened to those officers is not his fault,” Pamela Woods stressed to reporters on Wednesday. “And that’s not something he’d wish on them. It’s not something he planned. It’s not something he schemed. He didn’t lure anybody.”
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Emily Marks denied Woods’ request for a stay of execution. In a last-minute motion filed Thursday afternoon, Woods’ legal team requested a stay in federal court, arguing that the 42-year-old had been denied adequate legal representation in his initial case and throughout his attempts to appeal over the last 15 years.
The Birmingham Police Department declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall slammed the “last-minute movement” to “‘save cop-killer, Nathaniel Woods, from his just punishment” in a Tuesday statement, stating the influx of media attention and celebrity outcry does not excuse the fact that Woods was found guilty in the deaths of three policemen.
“The only injustice in the case of Nathaniel Woods is that which was inflicted on these four policemen that terrible day in 2004,” Marshall added.
But Woods’ sister said she just wanted her brother to have another shot at a “fair trial.”
“Gov. Ivey, I wish you would just please look at the information, the transcripts, everything that happened in this trial and please just give him a chance to have a fair trial,” Pamela Woods said Wednesday.
“Hear the evidence that proves that my brother would never do anything like this. He is a very loving, caring person and has a very meek and mild personality and he’s the type of person who would never even think of doing anything like that.”