Alabama Execution of Death Row Inmate Nathaniel Woods For Cop Killings Will Be a 'Modern Day Lynching,' Family Say

Nathaniel Woods didn't pull the trigger to shoot dead three police officers in Birmingham, Alabama on June 17, 2004.

But the 44-year-old is set to be executed by lethal injection for the killings of Carlos Owen, Harley Chisholm III and Charles Bennett at Alabama's Holman Prison at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

That's because Woods was charged as an accomplice, which under Alabama law, is punishable by death. If it goes ahead, his will be the first execution carried out in the state this year.

Prosecutors said Woods hated police and helped set an ambush for the officers when they tried to serve a misdemeanor warrant to Woods at a drug house in the Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham, where he and his friend Kerry Spencer sold crack cocaine.

Spencer confessed to gunning the three officers down in the deadliest day in the Birmingham Police Department's history. But he maintained that it had been an act of self-defense—a '"knee-jerk reaction"—when he saw Chisholm pointing a gun at him. Another officer, Michael Collins, survived.

But Woods' defenders say he is innocent—he never fired a weapon and there was no plot to kill the officers that day.

His attorneys say the surviving officer had testified that Woods surrendered to police before Spencer started shooting—but also changed his testimony from earlier statements to include a claim that Woods had threatened the officers before they were killed.

Woods' pro bono attorney Lauren Faraino said she read about Woods' case in a news article earlier this year and realized there had been "a grave miscarriage of justice."

Faraino, a former corporate lawyer who recently moved back to Alabama to join the investment business, said she decided to take on Woods' case a month ago despite not being a criminal defense attorney because no one else was "peeling back the layers of the case to see what the truth really was."

"As I learned about the way that they convicted him on the theory of complicity, saying there was a plan to kill that day, it is completely not supported by the evidence," she told Newsweek.

Nathaniel Woods
Nathaniel Woods with his (L-R) mother Pamela Woods, sister Heavenly Woods and sister Pamela Woods. Family of Nathaniel Woods

"The evidence shows that Kerry Spencer acted alone, acted impulsively and confessed the day that he was arrested. He has maintained that story, that narrative, for the entire time that he has been sitting on death row."

Faraino said Spencer, who was also sentenced to death for the killings, wrote to her this week to say Woods "is about to die for a crime that he did not commit."

"Nate ain't done nothing," Spencer told The Appeal in a recent interview. "My n**** is actually 100 percent innocent. All he did that day was get beat up and he ran."

"There's complete consistency on one side and then on the state's side saying there was some sort of plan," Faraino added.

"Frankly, it was just a narrative that they concocted in order to get more than one person for the shooting of three officers, which was an understandable tragedy, but it doesn't justify taking the blood of an innocent man."

Woods's family and supporters have been desperately campaigning to stop his execution.

An online petition urging Governor Ivey to grant him a reprieve has gotten more than 75,000 signatures as of Thursday morning. They've also amassed more than 20,000 letters from supporters urging Governor Ivey to stop the execution. On Wednesday, they visited Ivey's office in Montgomery, Alabama to deliver some of those letters. The governor's office has been contacted for comment.

The campaign has also attracted support from activists, including the son of late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and rappers T.I. and Meek Mill.

In a letter to Governor Ivey sent earlier this week, Martin Luther King III wrote: "In just two days, your state, and the state I was born in, is set to kill a man who is very likely innocent.

"55 years ago, my father Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from Selma, Alabama, where he and fellow civil rights activists were killed and beaten. Under your watch, Alabama is about to produce yet another tragic injustice.

He added: "Killing this African American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice. Are you willing to allow a potentially innocent man to be executed?"

King told Newsweek on Wednesday that he is yet to receive a response from the governor. "Governor Ivey only has a little over 24 hours to reverse this injustice and save Nate Woods' life," he said.

He urged people to contact the governor's office to request a reprieve for Woods, adding: "Woods' execution would only show that Alabama has not learned from the past, and that that they have not learned from the civil rights movement of the 1960s that focused on justice and a respect for human rights.

"This is 2020, we must do better than this. Governor Ivey only has a day to join the right side of history."

Woods' sister Pamela Woods told Newsweek that Woods is hopeful, but added that the campaign to save him is "an uphill battle."

"He's hopeful knowing about everything that we're doing to try to spread the word and get everyone to read about the case," she said.

"He's very hopeful about that but with us being in Alabama and he's a black man, it's an uphill battle. It's an uphill battle trying to save a black man on death row, innocent or not, they're gonna try to kill him. In this case, he's innocent and they want to kill him."

But Faraino added that the execution shouldn't only be stopped because Woods is innocent, but also because there is evidence of witness and evidence tampering and use of improper tactics in the case.

Nathaniel Woods
Nathaniel Woods with his sister Pamela Woods. Family of Nathaniel Woods

She added that she and other attorneys representing Woods' have collected evidence that they claim shows key witnesses in the case either testified falsely or didn't testify after making deals with the police.

"There were many issues with his trial and the way that the prosecutors conducted themselves, there is evidence of witness tampering, there is evidence of moving the physical forensic evidence that was collected at the scene and overall, there were just improper tactics used to confuse the jury and lead to a guilty verdict," she said.

The Appeal reported that two of the officers, Owen and Chisholm, "had a reputation for corruption and violence" and collected money from drug dealers in the neighborhood in return for protecting their operations, according to documents.

The non-profit Death Penalty Information Center has said that Woods' "racially charged convictions and death sentences are tainted by claims of police corruption, intimidation of witnesses, and inadequate representation."

They said the case needs to be scrutinized before he can be executed because of "alleged police misconduct, incompetent representation, and Alabama law allowing death verdicts based on non-unanimous jury votes."

Faraino said Woods' case has been hindered by "incompetent" counsel "at every single step of the way."

She said: "When I became involved, I realised just how deeply this had been messed up by his prior counsel." Faraino said Woods' trial attorneys, who had never tried a capital case before his, rejected a plea deal that the state had offered which would have seen him sentenced to between 20 and 25 years for a non-capital offense.

But the attorneys had advised Nate that he could not be sentenced to death because he was not the trigger man, Faraino said.

"Well, that is incorrect. In Alabama, even if you're not the trigger man, you can be sentenced to death on the theory of complicity which is exactly how they convicted Nate," she said.

"That's just one example of the way they messed up. At the appeals level, many of his attorneys just completely missed deadlines... one of his attorneys actually dropped off of his case without telling him therefore causing him to miss deadlines so now all of these strong legal claims have been procedurally barred because they were not submitted in time."

But Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has denied such a plea deal was ever offered to Woods. In a letter to Governor Ivey, Marshall said Woods' prosecutors "vehemently and unequivocally deny that such an offer was ever made."

In the letter, Marshall also urged Governor Ivey not to be persuaded by Woods' supporters.

He reiterated the state's view that the police officers were murdered in an ambush, each dying from multiple gunshot wounds. "Although Woods was not the shooter, he was hardly an innocent bystander," Marshall wrote.

He cited the testimony of Marquita McClure, who was Woods' girlfriend at the time, who told detectives that she had heard Woods and Spencer talking about killing police before the shootings, saying "I'll kill the m************."

But she later told a pretrial hearing that she "made that up," according to a report by the Associated Press in 2004. "I told y'all what you wanted to hear," she said. Woods' attorneys argued in an appeal that police had threatened to charge her with parole violations if she didn't testify against him, The Appeal reported.

Faraino wrote in a clemency petition that nearly all witnesses for the prosecution and defense were inconsistent in their testimony.

The petition said that Collins had testified at Woods' trial in October 2005 that Woods told the officers that "if you come in here, we'll f*** you up"—but never mentioned that comment in two police statements, including one on the day of the shooting, or in two sworn testimonies during Spencer's trial, which had taken place just months before.

Faraino wrote in a summary of her research that the change in testimony was "one of the most pivotal aspects of Nathaniel's conviction, because without that change in testimony, it would have been difficult to convict him of being an accomplice."

In his testimony, Collins also said that Woods had come out of the home with his hands up and said to the officers: "I give up. I give up. Just don't spray me with that mace."

"The circumstantial evidence presented by the State to show complicity is inconsistent, at best and tainted by witness and evidence tampering, at worst," the clemency petition added.

"The prosecution constructed and managed a narrative of guilt. There is no denying that Nate was not always a law-abiding citizen. He had a record, admitted to selling drugs, and disrespected the four white police officers. But he did not commit capital murder."

Nathaniel Woods
Nathaniel Woods in an undated booking photo. Woods is set to be executed for the killings of three police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2004. Alabama Department of Corrections

Nevertheless, in a statement issued on Wednesday, Marshall insisted that Woods had never surrendered and his punishment is "just."

"There is a last-minute movement afoot to 'save' cop-killer Nathaniel Woods from his just punishment," he said.

"The message of that movement is encapsulated by the headline of a press release sent out today, which declared: 'Surrendered and Innocent Man Set to Die.' That headline contains two falsehoods and one truth. The falsehoods are the descriptors 'surrendered' and 'innocent': neither apply whatsoever to Nathaniel Woods, whose actions directly caused the deaths of three policemen and injury to another.

"The truth is 'set to die': Nathaniel Woods was correctly found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers, and that sentence is set to be carried out tomorrow; that is, justice, is set to be carried out tomorrow. The only injustice in the case of Nathaniel Woods is that which was inflicted on those four policemen that terrible day in 2004." Marshall has been contacted for additional comment.

Pamela Woods said Marshall's letter and statement had infuriated her.

"It's a modern day lynching," she told Newsweek. "We're really upset about it because the Attorney General knows that my brother is innocent but for some reason, he wants to lynch a black man. They don't care about the facts of the case."

She described her brother as a "loving and caring" father to his three children—aged 18, 20 and 22—and his three young grandchildren.

"They just lost their mom to lung cancer and now they're trying to take their dad from them," she said.

Pamela Woods added that her brother had "turned his life around" when he was arrested. "The reason he was even there was because [he] was helping a pregnant girl who was homeless," she said.

"He had turned his life around. He started construction work. The only reason he was there was because he was trying to help someone because thats the type of person he is. He has a really big heart."

"I just want people to know he's an innocent man, they can read that for themselves, it's not just coming from my mouth. It's wrong in so many ways, I can't explain."

"We know and the world knows that he's an innocent man. We all know that he's innocent. So for [Governor Ivey], and her staff, or whoever, the Attorney General, to want to execute him knowing this information, it's just plain murder."