Nathaniel Woods executed as accomplice in 2004 police murders

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A Birmingham man was executed Thursday evening on a 2005 conviction of being an accomplice to the murder of three police officers.

Nathaniel Woods, 43, was pronounced dead at 9:01 p.m. after an execution that lasted about 15 minutes. The three Birmingham police officers — Charles Robert Bennett; Carlos "Curly" Owen and Harley Chisholm III — were killed on June 17, 2004, with a semi-automatic rifle by Kerry Spencer while entering a drug house.

Woods was put to death amid a storm of appeals and protests from supporters, who noted that Woods did not actually kill the officers; that Woods' attorneys missed key deadlines in his appeals, and that Spencer — who remains on death row — said Woods was not involved.  

"We want justice for the officers," said Woods' sister Pamela, after visiting her brother Thursday afternoon. "We want justice for my brother. It can't be one-sided or for one group of people. You have to have justice for everyone. We want justice for Nathaniel."

"Our loved ones took their last breath while upholding the law to make (Birmingham) a safer place," said Rhonda Hembd, the sister of Harley Chisholm, in a statement read by her sister after the execution. "Our families will not have closure until Kerry Spencer’s execution date. May God have mercy on their souls. Until then may our loved ones rest in peace."

An execution date has not been set for Spencer.

Woods had no final words before the execution began at 8:39 p.m. Thursday. He kept his head and shoulders elevated on the gurney he was strapped to for the first several minutes of the execution, looking at one of the galleries and occasionally moving his lips. He held his right index finger out throughout the execution, an apparent sign of his Islamic faith. 

Woods later laid back on the gurney. He showed labored breathing at 8:45 p.m., and his left arms jerked against its restraint. Woods did not respond to a consciousness test administered a minute later. 

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Officers Bennett; Owen and Chisholm III were shot and killed in a drug house on Birmingham's west side on June 17, 2004. Woods had yelled obscenities at the officers during an earlier visit. A police officer who survived the attack said that the officers returned to the house to serve a warrant. Spencer, who had been napping on the couch, began shooting, claiming that he saw a gun pointed at him.

In a statement Thursday night, Gov. Kay Ivey, who denied appeals for clemency, accused Woods of luring the police officers into the house, and said two other individuals had been executed in Alabama since 1983 "for being an accomplice to capital murder."

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“After thorough and careful consideration of the facts surrounding the case, the initial jury’s decision, the many legal challenges and reviews, I concluded that the state of Alabama should carry out Mr. Woods’ lawfully imposed sentence this evening," the statement said.

Though Woods acknowledged he and Spencer sold drugs, he is not accused of actually killing the officers and by all accounts did not have a gun at the time of the shooting. 

But at his 2005 trial, prosecutors argued that Woods had "conspired" with the shooter, Kerry Spencer. Alabama law makes a person legally accountable for the behavior of another person if he or she "procures, induces or causes such other person to commit the offense." Prosecutors did not provide evidence that Woods held or fired a gun during the incident.

A jury convicted Woods and voted 10-2 to sentence him to death. Spencer told The Appeal last month that Woods was not involved and that "there was no plan to kill the police."

Woods' counsel at his trial did not have experience with criminal cases and later missed key filing deadlines in his appeals process. His attorneys also raised questions as to whether Woods had been given time to opt into a nitrogen hypoxia execution process being developed by the state. 

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The Woods family and hundreds of thousands of people appealed to Gov. Kay Ivey to extend clemency to Woods. A petition seeking to stop the execution gathered more than 100,000 signatures as of Thursday evening. Several prominent figures called for the execution to be put off. Martin Luther King III wrote to Ivey earlier this week urging her to grant clemency. 

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

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama said in a statement Thursday he called Ivey's office to express concerns about the case. 

"Given the questions and mitigating issues involved in this case — and the finality of a death sentence — a delay is warranted to provide time for a thorough review of all the facts and circumstances to truly ensure that justice is done," the statement said.

Kim Kardashian West sent a tweet urging Ivey to commute Woods' sentence, and later shared a number for Gov. Ivey's office. The rapper and actor T.I. also called on followers to contact Ivey. The family of former Alabama and Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr also called for clemency. 

Woods' family delivered letters to Ivey on Wednesday in protest of the execution. 

Woods visited with his family members Thursday afternoon, including his daughter and granddaughter. His sister Pamela said after they were seeking time to submit evidence to the courts on Woods' behalf. 

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"You would really want to look into this case," she said before the execution. "With all the things going on in this case, you want to make sure you're executing someone who really committed the crime you said he did."

The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution after 5:30 p.m. to consider outstanding motions in the case, including those dealing with inadequate counsel and Woods' ability to opt into the nitrogen hypoxia method of execution. But the justices dismissed the motions shortly before 8 p.m., without comment. 

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A number of relatives of the officers witnessed the execution Thursday night. Susan Bennett, the widow of Officer Bennett, said "too much publicity has been given to someone who doesn't deserve an ounce of recognition" and spent her comments remembering her husband.

"He was a son, he was a brother, he was a friend, a husband, and a father," she said following the execution. "And he was truly a great and a godly man."

The debate over Woods extended to the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday morning. Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, told the body that "the evidence shows (Woods) is an innocent man."

"What we are facing right now is a travesty what happened," he said. "Those families lost their families, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers. But the man who’s been in prison all these years didn’t do anything to cause him to be on death row."

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Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Birmingham, a veteran of the Birmingham Police Department who knew the officers who were killed that day, said he "lost three buddies that day."

"My thoughts today go to that family," he said. "To his wife that called me crying, who called and said 'Allen, do you think I’ll live long enough to see justice served?'"

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said he did not have a problem with capital punishment for those who pulled the trigger. But he said Woods did not fit that bill. 

"He did not kill one officer," he said. "He was a drug addict in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Woods' execution was the first carried out by the state of Alabama in 2020. 

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