Nathaniel Woods Execution Reveals Disturbing Bias in Alabama

03.05.20

The State of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods tonight, making him the 67th death row prisoner executed in Alabama since 1976 and the 56th person executed for a crime involving white victims.

A stunning 84% of Alabama executions in the modern era have been carried out for crimes involving white victims even though only 20% of the state’s homicide victims are white, according to the Alabama Statistical Analysis Center. The dramatic disparity surrounding the race of the victim in Alabama’s death penalty reflects a longstanding problem of racial bias in the administration of capital punishment.

There is no dispute that Nathaniel Woods, who is black, did not kill any of the three victims in this case, all of whom are white. At the time of Mr. Woods’s trial, every elected prosecutor in the state of Alabama was white except one.

The persistent problem of racial discrimination in jury selection aggravates the racially biased charging decisions of prosecutors. Black people were underrepresented at Mr. Woods’s trial after prosecutors excluded every qualified black prospective juror except two in a county that is majority black. The jury’s 10-2 verdict for death would have spared Mr. Woods’s life in most states because death verdicts are generally required to be unanimous, but not in Alabama. The practice of permitting non-unanimous verdicts is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and could soon be struck down.

Adding to the serious concerns about unaddressed racial bias is the fact that all of Alabama’s 19 appellate court judges are white, despite the fact that black people make up 27% of the state’s population.

Alabama has no state-funded system for providing lawyers to death row prisoners and Mr. Woods is one of dozens of indigent people who have not been able to obtain adequate legal assistance at critical stages of the process. Mr. Woods’s appellate lawyer abandoned his case on direct appeal, forfeiting critically important review of the issues presented. Many death row prisoners remain unrepresented or underrepresented in Alabama today.

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 convicted of the same crime: capital murder.

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 a civil suit, Mr. Woods alleged that he was targeted for execution because he did not participate in his own execution by selecting a 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 prioritized for execution.

Gov. Kay Ivey denied a request for clemency despite thousands of requests that Mr. Woods’s life be spared.