Home > Uncategorized > The execution of Nathaniel Woods and the dying of legal conscience – posted 3/8/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/15/2020

The execution of Nathaniel Woods and the dying of legal conscience – posted 3/8/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/15/2020

During the Trump years, cruelty has become the new normal. Children in cages and separated families have lowered the bar on horrors to be tolerated and what is deemed acceptable conduct by public officials. Still, occasionally a story comes along that manages to shock even the most jaded. Such a story is the saga of Nathaniel Woods, a 43 year old Black man from Alabama who is no longer among the living.

The state of Alabama executed Woods by lethal injection on March 5.

Martin Luther King III responded to Woods’ execution this way:

“In the case of Nathaniel Woods, the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of the State of Alabama are reprehensible, and have potentially contributed to an irreversible injustice. It makes a mockery of justice and constitutional guarantees to a fair trial.”

Woods was a drug dealer. The State of Alabama convicted Woods of capital murder in 2005 in connection with the 2004 murder of three Birmingham Alabama police officers. Under the Alabama felony murder rule, if someone kills a person during the commission of a crime, an accomplice is as guilty as the person who pulls the trigger.

Woods did not kill any of the three police officers who died on June 17, 2004. Nor did he own or possess a gun. He was a drug dealer in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The officers had obtained a misdemeanor warrant for Woods’ arrest. As came out later, two of the officers were involved in a scheme to protect the drug dealers in exchange for cash. Tyran Cooper, the drug dealer who ran his business out of his home, had fallen behind in his payments to the police. Woods was selling drugs out of Cooper’s home.

When the police came to Cooper’s home, the confessed shooter, Kerry Spencer, shot the police officers impulsively. He testified he had been napping and he fired instinctively when he woke up and saw guns pointed in his direction. Whether this is true or not, the shootings were a unilateral, sudden action.

The only surviving officer in the raid, Michael Collins, testified that when he entered the house, Woods surrendered and begged officers not to pepper spray him. This was corroborated by the shooter Kerry Spencer in his own trial. Spencer testified that Woods had nothing to do with the killings. He said Woods yelled at the police: “I give up. I give up. Just don’t spray me with that mace”.

According to Spencer, the police did pepper spray Woods and Woods was holding his face “like he was in pain”.

At trial, Woods had court-appointed lawyers who had never handled a capital case. The lawyers very inadequately represented Woods. They wrongly told him that the prosecution had to prove he was the shooter to be convicted of capital murder. They failed to advise him about an offered 20 to 25 year plea deal. His lawyers missed appeal deadlines and made strategic mistakes that barred the courts from considering arguments that could have been made on his behalf.

Alabama is the only state in America where a defendant can receive the death penalty without a unanimous jury verdict, something else Woods never knew. The jury sentenced Woods to death on a 10-2 vote.

At the trial, since the prosecutors had no objective evidence that Woods planned the crime or participated in it, they offered that he hated the police. Prosecutors presented lyrics to a supposedly original song they said Woods wrote. The lyrics cited expressed lack of remorse for killing police officers.

It turned out that Woods did not write the song. After the court bought the argument and convicted him, it was ascertained that the lyrics the prosectors used came from a song “High-Powered” on Dr Dre’s album The Chronic.

Before Woods’ execution, two state witnesses signed affidavits that they were threatened into cooperating with the prosecution.

At the end, Woods’ clemency attorney was successful in creating some awareness that not everything at the trial was kosher. Alabama Senator Doug Jones said,

“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.”

Hundreds of thousands of people appealed to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey for clemency. A change.org petition seeking to stop the execution gathered more than 100,000 signatures at the time of Woods’ execution. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and the family of former Alabama and Green Bay Packer quarterback, Bart Starr, also weighed in for clemency.

As expected, Republican Governor Ivey denied Woods’ request for clemency. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the execution. However, for reasons not explained, the Court, after four hours, lifted the stay to allow the execution to go forward.

Shortly before Governor Ivey denied Woods’ clemency request, Kimberly Chisholm Simmons, a sister of one of the officers killed in the shooting unsuccessfully attempted to reach the governor. She was told Governor Ivey was unavailable at a meeting. In a statement, she wrote:

“I do not think Nathaniel is guilty of murder. Please do not move forward with the hasty decision to execute Nathaniel. My conscience will not let me live with this if he dies. I beg you to have mercy on him.”

Unfortunately, in the matter of the law, mercy often does not register and it did not here. The law should be about drawing appropriate distinctions, especially in matters of life and death. Considering the finality of death, you might think care would go into such consequential decisions. No good explanations were offered by the Governor or any court for why Nathaniel Woods had to die.

I would not expect much from a Southern governor like Kay Ivey. Alabama is indelibly stained with an overwhelming history of racism. The U.S. Supreme Court is another story.

It has gotten to a point where the expectation is that on matters of racial justice, the Court will do the wrong thing. And that is true even when the immediate issue is the life of an African American man who, in no way, deserves the death penalty.

The court’s action in not stopping the unjust execution of Nathaniel Woods is consistent with that institution’s dismal history on race matters. Currently the Court majority appears caught up in a version of color-blindness. The blindness is in not seeing the racism. Historically, hundreds of black people have been lynched in Alabama. That is a history that remains minimized by the state of Alabama and the U.S. Supreme Court. Nathaniel Woods is just the latest victim of a legal lynching.

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