Alabama Death Row Prisoner Challenges Execution Scheduled Because He Did Not Participate in Selecting Method

Updated 03.05.20

The State of Alabama has scheduled the execution of Nathaniel Woods for Thursday, March 5. Lawyers contend that the State of Alabama is prioritizing the execution of Mr. Woods because he did not participate in the execution process by selecting his own execution method.

In June 2018, the State of Alabama enacted a law that added nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method to lethal injection. As a result, the State purported to offer death row inmates two different methods of execution—nitrogen hypoxia and lethal injection—but did not inform Mr. Woods or others that they would be prioritized for execution unless they participated and affirmatively picked the “option” of nitrogen hypoxia.

Since then, the State has sought to execute only condemned prisoners who did not select nitrogen hypoxia, such as Jarrod Taylor, whom the State moved to execute in October. However, when the State later learned it was mistaken about Mr. Taylor, it withdrew its request for an execution date, stating that it was doing so because Mr. Taylor “made a timely election of nitrogen hypoxia.”

After withdrawing the execution motion in Mr. Taylor’s case, the State of Alabama has since publicly acknowledged that it is seeking executions only against inmates who did not participate and affirmatively opt for nitrogen hypoxia, although that was not previously disclosed to condemned prisoners.

In January, after the State scheduled Mr. Woods’s execution for March 5, lawyers for Mr. Woods filed a legal challenge alleging that the process that led to Mr. Woods being prioritized for execution is arbitrary and unconstitutional. They contend that it is cruel and unusual for the State to seek an execution date for Mr. Woods ahead of others because he did not participate in the execution process and opt for nitrogen hypoxia. His lawsuit alleges that no inmate would knowingly opt to be prioritized for execution.

For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the death penalty is constitutional as long as the ultimate decision of who gets executed is not arbitrary or capricious. According to Mr. Woods’s lawsuit, the federal courts should stay his execution to allow the State to implement procedures that fully disclose the consequence of decisions.

Nathaniel Woods was charged with capital murder and accused of being an accomplice to Kerry Spencer, who was convicted of shooting and killing three Birmingham, Alabama, police officers in 2004. The undisputed evidence at Mr. Woods’s capital trial was that while he was present at the apartment when police arrived, he was not the triggerman and Kerry Spencer was responsible for the shots that killed the three officers and injured a fourth. Mr. Spencer was sentenced to death and currently is appealing his conviction and sentence.

Update: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied relief in Mr. Woods’s federal lawsuit on Wednesday. The case is now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey denied Mr. Woods’s clemency application this evening. The State of Alabama executed Mr. Woods at 9 pm tonight.