The State of Alabama is planning to execute Nathaniel Woods today despite serious questions about his culpability and the reliability of his conviction and sentence.
Mr. Woods is poor, could not afford counsel, and was appointed an attorney who abandoned him in the middle of the appeal of his conviction and death sentence. His case has never been adequately reviewed by either state or federal courts. Mr. Woods was not the trigger-person in this case—he was only convicted of being an accomplice—so there are serious questions about his culpability. The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict, yet Mr. Woods was sentenced to death, raising additional concerns about the constitutionality of the death penalty in this case.
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 showed that Mr. Woods was present at the apartment when police arrived, but he was not the triggerman—Kerry Spencer was responsible for the shots that killed the three officers and injured a fourth. Despite the fact that Mr. Woods was less culpable than Kerry Spencer, he was nevertheless convicted of the same crime: capital murder.
Even though his lawyer did not adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence, Mr. Woods’s jury still could not reach a unanimous death penalty verdict. Their 10-2 verdict raises important questions about the propriety of Mr. Woods’s death sentence and whether his execution would be appropriate. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case, Ramos v. Louisiana, that questions whether non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases are unconstitutional.
Mr. Woods was denied his constitutional rights when his appellate lawyer appointed by the State abandoned him in the middle of the case and failed to file a brief on his behalf, preventing the Alabama Supreme Court from reviewing his case. At the time, Mr. Woods was on death row, had no access to his case docket, and did not learn that his appointed lawyer had abandoned him until months after the deadline to file had passed. When new counsel asked the Alabama Supreme Court—and, later, the U.S. Supreme Court—to provide Mr. Woods an opportunity to file a brief with a competent lawyer, both courts refused. As a result, the serious questions about his culpability and the propriety of his sentence have never been adequately reviewed in either state or federal court.
In addition to the concerns about his culpability, the appropriateness of his sentence, and the lack of adequate appellate review in the case due to the abandonment by appellate counsel, there are serious questions about the date of the scheduled execution. Mr. Woods has alleged that he is being targeted for execution because he did not participate in the process of selecting his execution method. The State purported to offer him two different methods—lethal injection and nitrogen hypoxia—but unfairly neglected to tell Mr. Woods that if he did not participate in and affirmatively pick the “option” of nitrogen hypoxia, he would be executed before inmates who did. Mr. Woods is challenging this process and has alleged that the arbitrary method of selecting prisoners to be executed is unconstitutional.
Update: Lawyers for Nathaniel Woods argued in federal district court last week that the State of Alabama is unconstitutionally prioritizing him for execution because he did not participate in the execution process by opting for nitrogen hypoxia. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied relief 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, despite requests from the sister of Officer Harley Chisholm III to spare Mr. Woods. The State of Alabama executed Mr. Woods at 9 pm tonight.