“Simply being at the wrong place where someone else shows up and then starts firing at police officers is not a reason to assign culpability to someone else,” Bart Starr Jr., the son of the late NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, said of Nathaniel Woods.
Barring any interventions from the courts or the Alabama Governor, Woods, who was convicted of killing three police officers in 2004, will be executed Thursday though questions have been raised about his culpability.
Community advocates say death is a punishment he does not deserve considering another defendant in the case confessed to being the lone gunman.
In other words, Woods did not pull the trigger but the fact that he was at the scene and is seen as an accomplice means he can be sentenced to death, according to Alabama laws.
“What took place was simultaneously a tragedy for three families of police officers, but now another potential tragedy because the system has failed an individual,” said Starr, Jr.
Woods was convicted of killing Birmingham police officers Carlos “Curly” Owen, Harley Chisholm III, and Charles Bennett. The three officers had arrived at an apartment in Ensley in 2004 and were in the process of arresting Woods and Kerry Spencer, who were suspected of dealing drugs.
According to prosecutors, Spencer opened fire, killing three of the officers and wounding a fourth.
Spencer said the police had been at the home several times that day, and he was forced to kill them in self-defense after seeing Woods get assaulted by them.
But the prosecutors argued that the officers were killed because Woods hated law enforcement and had lured the officers into the house so Spencer could kill them.
Woods did not fire the fatal shots, but to prosecutors, he masterminded the plan and he is an accomplice.
Spencer was tried and sentenced to death in 2005. Woods was also tried and convicted of capital murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to death.
But his attorneys have argued that the outcome of Woods’ trial could have changed per the investigations they have conducted and court documents they have seen.
They said Woods had a court-appointed lawyer who had never handled a capital case, left important information out of the trial, and didn’t advise him properly about taking a plea deal that was offered.
According to The Appeal, then-Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber offered Woods a plea deal that would have led to a 20- to a 25-year prison sentence.
Woods refused the deal because his attorneys told him the state had to prove that he pulled the trigger for him to be convicted of capital murder.
“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 his 2017 habeas petition cited by The Appeal.
But that was not the case under Alabama law, and Woods would suffer greatly from that decision. In fact, for not arguing self-defense, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tommy Nail did not take in any evidence of police misconduct into the trial, according to The Appeal.
There were claims that the deceased officers accepted bribes from known drug dealers in Birmingham for years. Tyran Cooper, who operated the drug house that Woods and Spencer were in on the day of the shootings, said he owed the said police officers money.
Spencer even claimed during the trial that the officers came to the house earlier that fateful day in search of Cooper.
Woods is set to die by lethal injection on March 5 at William C. Holman prison in Atmore. Due to mistakes made by his former attorneys, such as missing deadlines to file motions, his execution comes before Spencer, who has appeals still pending in federal court because he got a better representation.
In an interview with The Appeal, Spencer is not happy that Woods will be executed before him.
“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.”
With just a day to live, advocates are hoping for a stay from the courts or that state Governor Kay Ivey will intervene by commuting his sentence.
“In just 2 days, your state, and the state I was born in, is set to kill a man who is very likely innocent,” Martin Luther King III, son of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote to the governor recently.
“Killing this African American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice,” he added.