BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — He cradled his infant grandchild for the first and final time. He picked at some food. He posed for family photographs that captured smiles as strained as the conversation. Then someone in charge said it was time.
Nathaniel Woods assured his heavy-hearted father that everything would be all right. Dad, I love you, he said.
It was late afternoon on March 5, 2020, the day chosen by the state of Alabama to be Woods’ last. He had been convicted 15 years earlier in connection with the shooting deaths of three Birmingham police officers — and ever since had been re-christened Cop Killer Nathaniel Woods.
But Woods never killed anyone. He was unarmed when the officers were gunned down while rushing into a drug house to execute a warrant for his arrest on a misdemeanor.
Alabama — one of 26 states where an accomplice can be sentenced to death, according to the American Civil Liberties Union — argued that Woods had intentionally lured the officers to their deaths. It did not have to prove that he actually killed anyone in seeking his conviction for capital murder.
The Death Penalty Information Center estimates that of the country’s 1,458 executions between 1985 and 2018, 11 involved cases in which the defendant neither arranged nor committed murder. Even rarer are cases in which the person was unarmed and uninvolved in a violent act, such as a robbery — cases like that of Woods.
“Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent,” another death row inmate, Kerry Spencer, wrote in a letter in support of Woods. “I know this to be a fact because I’m the man that shot and killed all three of the officers.”
Woods was a Black man living in the Black-majority city of Birmingham. But only two of the dozen jurors hearing his case were Black. The judge and the two prosecutors were white, as were the three victims.
He was also a Black man living in Alabama, a state with a history of racial injustice and a full embrace of capital punishment. It has the country’s highest number of death row inmates per capita and is the only state that does not require jury unanimity in recommending death.
After brief deliberations, the jury had voted, 10-2: death.
In the annals of capital punishment, Woods is not the most sympathetic figure: a drug dealer whose evasive actions led to three deaths who refused to show compassion. Still, just as jurors struggled with reading Woods’ impassive facial expression, so too does the law struggle with measures of punishment. How could it be that the armed man who killed three officers continues to live while the unarmed man who fled dies?
The Path to 18th Street
On a hot afternoon, all that separated the hostility between Woods and Officer Carlos Owen was a screen door.
Their fraught standoff June 17, 2004, was unfolding at a bare-bones apartment in the city’s Ensley section.
Woods was a clerk in a 24-hour drug operation run by his cousin Tyran Cooper. His job: collect the money and hand over the drugs.
Woods spent his early childhood in Tuscaloosa, teasing his younger sisters, Heavenly and Pamela. But they say the familial mirth all but ended when their parents split up.
Woods left school after the sixth grade and eventually moved to Birmingham to live with his father. He developed a knack for electronics, as well as a knack for trouble, with arrests for burglary, reckless driving and public drinking.
He got a job at a Piggly Wiggly warehouse, but it did not stick. Now he was 28, with three young children and a job selling drugs in an operation taking in $3,000 a day.
His work partner and friend Spencer, 23, had followed a similar path. He, too, had left school, had worked at the Piggly Wiggly warehouse and had young children. He was also snorting $350 worth of cocaine a day and was usually armed.
Just two months earlier, in April 2004, their boss, Cooper, had helped set a Birmingham corner aglow with gunfire during a dispute that left two people wounded. He was arrested a short while later.
For all the drugs and gunplay, life at the 18th Street apartment passed without police interruption, Spencer would later testify.
Except the police were now at the back door.
Curly and RoboCop
Owen, 58, was a Birmingham Police Department fixture assigned to patrol the Ensley streets. Although he was a graying grandfather, everyone called him by a nickname based on an old hairstyle: Curly.
Looming beside Owen at the back door was Officer Harley Chisholm III, a few days short of his 41st birthday. His on-the-job enthusiasm, coupled with his 6-foot-4 frame and wraparound sunglasses, had earned the six-year police veteran and former Marine a nickname of his own: RoboCop.
Curly and RoboCop, the patrolling guardians of Ensley. Some in the neighborhood respected them, some feared them, and some — including Cooper — considered them corrupt.
In a 2012 affidavit, Cooper claimed to have paid protection money to Owen and Chisholm for years — with weekly payoffs of as much as $1,000. In return, he said, they suppressed local competition and tipped him off to the buy-and-bust operations of narcotics officers.
But Cooper said that after he was arrested on attempted murder charges — in connection with that shooting spree in April 2004 — the two officers raised their price to $3,000 a week. At that point, he said, he stopped paying them for protection.
Others who lived in Ensley told similar stories about the two officers. But neither man was ever formally accused of corruption, according to Annetta Nunn, the police chief at the time.
A Burst of Violence
The screen door standoff was the culmination of escalating tensions that day at the 18th Street apartment. There had already been one previous encounter, if not two, but there is no question that Owen and Chisholm arrived at the apartment around 10:30 that morning — to check on stolen cars, they said — and that they got into a heated argument with Woods and Spencer.
At some point, Woods gave his name because, his defenders say, he believed he had done nothing wrong.
Before the officers left the scene, they used the patrol car computer of Officer Michael Collins, who had arrived in the midst of the confrontation, to run Woods’ name through criminal databases. The drug dealers, meanwhile, began hiding their paraphernalia — in anticipation.
Spencer said that he then took a pill, drank a Bud Lite and went to sleep. Beside him: a semi-automatic rifle.
Less than three hours later, the police received confirmation that Woods was wanted in nearby Fairfield on a misdemeanor assault charge related to a four-month-old domestic disturbance. This time, four police officers pulled up to the apartment: Owen, Chisholm, Collins and Charles Robert Bennett.
Owen was at the back door again, telling Woods that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest and to come outside. Woods refused.
When Chisholm was summoned from the front yard to confirm the warrant’s existence, Collins later said, Woods ran deeper into the apartment. Chisholm rushed in after him, followed by Owen and Collins.
Some of what happened next is in dispute: whether the police used pepper spray, whether the police drew their guns. But there is no doubt of the sudden explosion of violence that followed, detailed by Spencer in a cellphone video recorded from death row last year.
He said that he woke up to commotion, looked out a window to see a police car and then saw Woods stumbling out of the kitchen. Seeing movement, he opened fire with his semi-automatic, killing Chisholm and Owen. One bullet nicked Collins as he fled out the back door.
Bennett came through the front door and, Spencer said, “I hit him, like, three times.”
Amid the gunfire, Woods started to flee, passing Bennett lying on the ground.
Spencer said he went to the back door and sprayed a patrol car with bullets to scare off Collins. As he ran out the front door, he sensed that the gravely wounded Bennett was trying to grab his leg. He shot him in the head.
An anxious but determined manhunt followed. Woods watched the activity while sitting on a porch diagonally across from the apartment. He surrendered when identified, convinced that he would be fine because he had not killed anyone.
Judge and Jury
The officers’ deaths staggered Alabama. A year later, it was time to prosecute the two men charged with causing those deaths.
Spencer was convicted first. In presenting a case of self-defense, his lawyer apparently raised enough doubt about what the police were doing at the apartment that the jury recommended life without parole rather than the death penalty.
But Alabama at that time allowed judges to overrule jury recommendations — which the judge did by sentencing Spencer to death.
A month later, in October 2005, Woods stood trial on the same capital murder charges for which Spencer had just been convicted.
Woods’ lawyers had confidence in their case, but prosecutors challenged the premise that the shooting was unplanned by portraying Woods as a police-hating criminal who had purposely led the officers to their deaths in the apartment.
Woods was convicted of all counts. Then came the sentencing phase.
With the jury about to decide whether he should live or die, Woods took the stand.
Asked by his lawyer, Cynthia Umstead, whether he had anything to say to the families of the dead officers, Woods responded, “Well, I really don’t have no feeling about the officers. I really didn’t have nothing to do with it, but if they feel they need to take my blood, then fine. If they be satisfied with that, then it’s fine.”
His response flabbergasted one juror, Chris McAlpine. “That’s all he said,” he recalled. “And I remember sitting there going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s the best you could come up with, knowing what we’re fixing to decide?’”
Another juror, Curtis Crane, recalled feeling the full gravity of the jury’s responsibility. “You ask yourself: What gives you the right to do this?” he said. “You’re just a man; just a person. What gives you the right to tell somebody else they’ve got to die?”
This fundamental question explains why, in 2005, nearly every state with a capital punishment statute required a jury to be unanimous in recommending death. At the time, only Florida, Delaware and Alabama allowed for a nonunanimous jury recommendation of death; today, the practice continues only in Alabama, where 10 of a dozen jurors is considered sufficient.
Deliberations were short but intense. According to McAlpine, the vote came down to 10 jurors in favor of death, and two jurors, both Black women, opposed.
Fight to Spare a Life
Woods spent the next 15 years at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility, infamous for its violence and overcrowding. The state began shutting down most of the prison in early 2020, but it remains the place where Alabama’s condemned live and die.
All the while, Woods’ family fought to have his life spared. A succession of lawyers made a succession of desperate arguments. None found purchase.
As Woods swayed between hope and despair, he corresponded with family members. He wrote poetry. He converted to Islam.
Finally, on Jan. 30, 2020, prison officials presented Woods with a one-page document to sign. It stipulated that he was to be executed March 5.
No similar letter has been sent to Spencer. Unlike Woods, he managed to extend his life by opting for death by nitrogen hypoxia. The protocols for this untested gassing method have yet to be finalized in Alabama — the only state to approve it — which means that the man who killed three police officers would continue to live while his unarmed associate would die.
A month before Woods’ scheduled execution, two unlikely advocates took up his case: Lauren Faraino, 30, a corporate lawyer with no experience in capital murder cases, and her mother, Elaena Starr, 60.
Turning Faraino’s kitchen into a command center, they scoured court documents, interviewed witnesses and capitalized on the media contacts of Starr’s husband, Bart Starr Jr., the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr.
March 5 arrived. At about 4 p.m., Woods said his final goodbyes to his family and disappeared behind a door.
Faraino, meanwhile, was frantically trying to have the 6 p.m. execution called off.
With less than an hour to go, Kimberly Chisholm Simmons, a sister of the late Chisholm, returned her call. “He didn’t kill my brother,” Simmons told Faraino, according to a recording of their call.
Faraino began to cry. “If I, if I can get you in touch with, with, someone at the governor’s office, would you convey that message to them?” she asked.
“Yes I will,” Simmons said.
With Simmons still on the line, Faraino tried to reach the state of Alabama. Faraino finally managed to send the governor a statement from Simmons that asserted Woods’ innocence and included a plea: “I beg you to have mercy on him.”
Mercy was fleeting.
About 22 minutes before the scheduled 6 p.m. execution, Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay, allowing for one more review of the case. With the death warrant expiring at midnight, the Supreme Court had six hours to decide Woods’ fate.
At 7:35, word came that Gov. Kay Ivey had decided that clemency for Woods was “unwarranted.” A few minutes later, the Supreme Court lifted the stay.
At 8:08, a disconsolate Faraino sent an email to one of the lawyers who had fought for Woods’ life: “It’s over Alicia. They are executing him.”
Woods was declared dead at 9:01 p.m. He was 43. He is buried in a Muslim cemetery in Georgia, a good 50 miles from the Alabama line.
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