Nathaniel Woods was unarmed when three Birmingham police officers were fatally shot by someone else in 2004. But Woods, a Black man, was convicted of capital murder for his role in the deaths of the three white officers.
Dec. 5, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET
BIRMINGHAM — 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.
The center of attention, Nathaniel Woods, assured his heavy-hearted father that everything would be all right. Dad, I love you, he said. But when y’all walk out this gate today, I’m gonna walk out with y’all, but y’all aren’t going to know it.
It was late afternoon on March 5, 2020, the overcast day chosen by the State of Alabama to be Mr. Woods’s last. He had been convicted 15 years earlier in connection with the shooting deaths of three Birmingham police officers — and ever since had been rechristened Cop Killer Nathaniel Woods.
But Mr. Woods never killed anyone. He was unarmed when the officers were gunned down while rushing into a cramped 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Woods, whose defenders say he had no foreknowledge of the violence to unfold and fled in terror as the bullets flew.
“Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent,” another death-row inmate, Kerry Spencer, wrote in a letter in support of Mr. Woods. “I know this to be a fact because I’m the man that shot and killed all three of the officers.”
Mr. Woods — whose case is the subject of a new documentary by The New York Times, “To Live and Die in Alabama” — 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 to 2: Death.
In the annals of capital punishment, Mr. Woods is not the most sympathetic figure: a drug dealer whose evasive actions led to three deaths; who taunted one of the widows in a letter; who refused to show compassion, even at his sentencing. Still, just as jurors struggled with reading Mr. Woods’s 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 tragedy is that people like Nathaniel Woods become victims of our indifference to injustice,” said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Alabama. He added, “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn’t make you someone who is evil.”
Time, said someone in charge.
Dark-bearded but still boyish, his slight frame dressed in his death-row whites, the condemned man looked back at his family. Then he disappeared behind a door held open just for him.
Heavenly Woods, one of his sisters, said she can’t get that last look out of her mind. “It’s just stuck,” she said. “It’s just, you know, just: What was he thinking?”
The path to 18th Street
On a hot afternoon getting hotter by the second, all that separated the hostility between Nathaniel Woods, drug dealer, and Carlos Owen, police officer, was a back screen door.
Their fraught standoff on June 17, 2004, was unfolding at a one-story, bare-bones apartment in the city’s Ensley section. The surrounding empty lots and vacant storefronts told the familiar American story of steel and prosperity moving out and drugs and crime moving in.
Mr. Woods was a clerk in a 24-hour drug operation run by his cousin Tyran Cooper, who went by Bubba. His job: Collect the money and hand over the drugs.
“A good dude,” Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Woods spent his early childhood in Tuscaloosa, nursing stray animals and teasing his younger sisters, Heavenly and Pamela, who still call him by his nickname Quail. But they say the familial mirth all but ended when their parents split up, partly because their mother used beatings to keep them in line.
“I told the police if I can’t whoop their ass, then they need to take them to jail or take me, because ain’t no child going to run my house when I’m getting up and going to work two jobs taking care of them,” their mother, also named Pamela Woods, said. “And all I get is, ‘You mean, you hateful, you abuse us.’
“No, I whipped them,” she added. “If I abused them, they would have had marks.”
Mr. Woods left school after the sixth grade and eventually moved to Birmingham to live with his father, Nathaniel Woods Sr. He developed a knack for electronics, able to revive a dead television, as well as a knack for trouble, with arrests for burglary, reckless driving and public drinking.
He got a job driving a forklift at a Piggly Wiggly warehouse, where his father was a foreman, but it didn’t 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 Kerry Spencer, 23, had followed a similar path. He, too, had left school, had worked at the Piggly Wiggly warehouse and had young children. But he was also snorting $350 worth of cocaine a day, and was usually armed.
This wasn’t warehouse work, after all. Just two months earlier, in April 2004, their boss, Mr. 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 in his bullet-riddled white Buick.
For all the drugs and bullets, life at the 18th Street apartment passed without police interruption, Mr. Spencer would later testify. “Everyone around us was getting busted, but we never got touched,” he would say.
Except the police were now at the back door.
Curly and RoboCop
Officer Carlos Owen, 58, was a Birmingham Police Department fixture assigned to patrol the Ensley streets he knew so well. Though he was a graying grandfather with plans to retire in two years, everyone called him by a nickname based on an old hairstyle: Curly.
In his 26 years on the job, he had been shot at three times, bitten by a dog once and involved in too many chases to remember. He had led the police union and been repeatedly honored for his police work, including as Officer of the Year in 2002.
“He epitomized the community policing idea,” Bill Lowe, an Ensley business owner, would later tell The Birmingham News. He added: “He knew where the good guys were and where the bad guys were.”
Others praised Officer Owen as strict but fair.
“He was good to me,” said Lou Lou Chatman, 60, a self-described former drug dealer. “A couple of times he could have took me to jail. And even if he had to take you to jail, he would pull over and let you get rid of everything on you.”
Looming beside Officer 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 six-foot-four frame and wraparound sunglasses, had earned the six-year police veteran and former Marine a nickname of his own: RoboCop.
“He knew when to police from the book and police from his heart,” one of his sisters, Starr Chisholm Sidelinker, wrote to The New York Times. “He chose to work in one of the bad-ass areas to help make it a better place for the community.”
Officer Chisholm had been both honored and disciplined for his police work. In 2002, a year after being named the West Precinct’s officer of the year, he was suspended after admitting to opening a woman’s car trunk, dousing some baby clothes with beer from bottles he had broken, and destroying a television set in the vehicle with a knife.
Curly and RoboCop, the patrolling guardians of Ensley. Some in the neighborhood respected them, some feared them, and some — including Mr. Woods’s employer and cousin, Bubba Cooper — considered them corrupt.
In a 2012 affidavit, and again in an interview this summer with The Times, Mr. Cooper claimed to have paid protection money to Officers Owen and Chisholm for years — with weekly payoffs of as much as $1,000 usually made at a local steakhouse called Niki’s West. In return, he said, they suppressed local competition and tipped him off to the buy-and-bust operations of narcotics officers.
“That’s how I was able to operate so long,” he told The Times.
But Mr. 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, including some involved in the drug trade at the time, 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.
“Where is the proof?” she asked.
Mr. Owen’s daughter, Andrea Elders, dismissed the allegations against her father — who, she said, used to deliver bicycles to disadvantaged children in Ensley — as untruths concocted after his death by local criminals.
“‘Oh, he was a crooked cop,’” Ms. Elders said with derision. “No, he wasn’t. Twenty-six years on the police force, he was not a crooked cop. You would think if he was, it would have come out.”
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.
Mr. Spencer and Mr. Woods later claimed that Officer Owen first appeared at the apartment around dawn, pulling up in his truck on his way to the West Precinct building a half-mile away. Police records indicate that he reported to work at 6:30 that morning.
They said that he kicked at the door, demanding to talk to Bubba, before finally leaving.
But this account could not be verified, and another witness later testified that neither Mr. Woods nor Mr. Spencer was at the apartment early that morning, though she said someone later told her that Officer Owen had indeed stopped by.
There is no question that Officers 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 Mr. Woods and Mr. Spencer.
The two sides swapped obscenities and threats that centered on hiding behind a badge and hiding behind a door. “It wasn’t a friendly conversation,” Mr. Spencer later testified.
At some point, Officer Owen briefly removed his badge. At some point, Mr. 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 Mr. Woods’s name through criminal databases. The drug dealers, meanwhile, began hiding their paraphernalia — in anticipation.
Mr. Spencer said that he then took a pill, drank a Bud Lite and went to sleep. Beside him: a semiautomatic rifle he had recently acquired in exchange for $35, a handgun and a half-gram of cocaine.
Less than three hours later, the police received confirmation by phone that Mr. Woods was wanted in nearby Fairfield on a misdemeanor assault charge related to a four-month-old domestic disturbance - eliciting a “Woohoo” from Officer Chisholm. This time, four police officers pulled up to the 18th Street apartment: Mr. Owen, Mr. Chisholm, Mr. Collins and Charles Robert Bennett.
Now Officer Owen was at the back door again, telling Mr. Woods through the screen that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest and to come outside. Mr. Woods profanely refused.
When Officer Chisholm was summoned from the front yard to confirm the warrant’s existence, Officer Collins later said, Mr. Woods cursed again and ran deeper into the small apartment, where the covered windows cast the drug-house clutter in eternal dusk. Officer Chisholm rushed in after him, followed by Officers 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Woods stumbling out of the kitchen, holding his face as if in pain — perhaps from pepper spray. Then, seeing movement, he opened fire with his semiautomatic, killing Officers Chisholm and Owen. One bullet nicked Officer Collins as he fled out the back door.
“I was so shocked,” Mr. Woods later told the police. “And I was hollering, telling him to stop, stop, stop.”
Then Officer Bennett — 33 and married, with a 4-year-old daughter — came through the front door and, Mr. Spencer said, “I hit him like three times.”
Amid the gunfire, Mr. Woods scrambled out the bathroom window and started to flee, passing Officer Bennett lying on the ground. “He said, ‘Uh, I been hit,’” Mr. Woods told the police. But he kept running.
Mr. Spencer said he went to the back door and sprayed a patrol car with bullets to scare off Officer Collins. As he ran out the front door, he sensed that the gravely wounded Officer Bennett was trying to grab his leg. He shot him in the head.
An anxious but determined manhunt followed, with crouched officers searching alleys and houses with guns drawn. Mr. Woods watched the activity while sitting on a porch diagonally across from the apartment, as if the drama had nothing to do with him. He surrendered when identified, convinced that he would be fine because he hadn’t killed anyone.
“I won’t shoot no police officer,” he would say while being interrogated later that day. “Ain’t do nothing like that. That ain’t, that ain’t me.”
The judge and the jurors
A memorial plaque hangs inside the Birmingham Police Department’s West Precinct building in Ensley. It depicts in bas-relief the likeness of three police officers killed in the line of duty. Carlos Owen, grandfather. Harley Chisholm III, former Marine. Robert Bennett, young father.
Whenever their former police chief, Annetta Nunn, sees the memorial, she is instantly returned to that hot afternoon of June 17, 2004. To that 18th Street apartment.
“Bennett was the youngest,” Ms. Nunn said. “And, you know, looking in his eyes just reminds me of that day, because his eyes were partially opened when I saw him. It just brings that memory back, seeing his eyes.”
The deaths staggered Alabama. A year later, it was time to prosecute the two men charged with causing those deaths.
The gunman, Kerry Spencer, was convicted first. In presenting a case of self-defense, his lawyer, Michael Blalock, 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.
“Something’s going on that shouldn’t be going on, bottom line,” Mr. Blalock said in an interview. “And I think the jurors picked up on it.”
But Alabama at that time allowed judges to overrule jury recommendations — which Judge Tommy Nail of the Jefferson County Circuit Court did by sentencing Mr. Spencer to death. “May God have mercy on your soul,” the judge said.
A month later, in October 2005, Mr. Woods stood trial on the same capital murder charges for which Mr. Spencer had just been convicted.
“Most people think that you can only get the death penalty for murders that you are responsible for, in the sense that you committed the killing or you paid somebody to commit the killing,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But he said that the Supreme Court permitted a person to be sentenced to death “if you had ‘reckless disregard’ for the life of the victim and were a major participant in the underlying felony.”
Still, Mr. Woods’s lawyers had confidence in their case. He never fired a shot, he didn’t have a gun and even the shooter, Mr. Spencer, said Mr. Woods had nothing to do with the killings.
True, Mr. Woods had talked trash about the police and had challenged Officer Owen to a fight. “Makes him guilty of having a big mouth,” his lawyer, Cynthia Umstead, told the jury. “Makes him guilty of stupidity for saying that. Does not make him guilty of capital murder.”
But prosecutors challenged the premise that the shooting was unplanned by portraying Mr. Woods as a police-hating criminal who had purposely led the officers to their deaths in the tight apartment.
“They wanted them trapped,” a prosecutor, Mara Sirles, said. Mr. Woods “was the bait,” she said. “Kerry Spencer was the hook.”
Three officers had died because Mr. Woods refused to cooperate with a simple, legitimate arrest warrant, Ms. Sirles said. And, under the law, he was just as culpable for their deaths as the gunman.
Throughout, Mr. Woods’s flat expression invited interpretation. At least one white juror believed that the defendant tried to intimidate the jury with his stare. But a Black alternate juror, Christina Bishop, saw only defeat.
“His demeanor was just as serious as the crime that he was being charged with,” said Ms. Bishop, a retired postal worker who, as an alternate juror, was excused before the votes on conviction and sentencing were taken.
Mr. Woods was convicted of all counts, after which a couple of jurors questioned the rigor of his legal team’s defense. Then came the sentencing phase, with Mr. Woods’s unapologetic defiance cast in a damning light.
Prosecutors presented a piece of paper taken from his prison cell, on which he had rewritten the lyrics of a rap song by Dr. Dre to include the line, “I drop pigs like Kerry Spencer.”
They presented a taunting letter that Mr. Woods had sent to Officer Chisholm’s widow shortly after his conviction. “This is a good friend of yours, yes Gurl it’s me ‘Nathaniel Woods,’” he began, before maintaining his innocence and saying that he didn’t give a damn what she and other family members “think, want or are seeking.”
Prosecutors also summoned the widows of the officers to give voice to their profound loss, and to assert that — as Officer Owen’s wife, Bobbie, put it — Mr. Woods “needs the death penalty.”
With the jury about to decide whether he should live or die, Mr. Woods took the stand. His lawyers had prepped him in how best to seek the jury’s mercy, Ms. Umstead later said, “but when he got on the stand, it’s like he had never heard a word.”
Asked by Ms. Umstead whether he had anything to say to the families of the dead officers, Mr. 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, a loss-recovery specialist for an Alabama utility. “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?’”
“If I could have just shaken him and said, ‘You need to come up with some kind of heartfelt something to give us,’” Mr. McAlpine said. “Oh, I wanted to. If I could turn back time and do it, I would do it.”
Another juror, Curtis Crane, a retiree, 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 non-unanimous jury recommendation of death; today, the practice continues only in Alabama, where 10 of a dozen jurors is considered sufficient.
Deliberations were short — less than two-and-a-half hours — but intense. According to Mr. McAlpine, the vote came down to 10 jurors in favor of death, and two jurors, both Black women, opposed.
They didn’t offer an explanation, he said. “It was: ‘I just can’t do it.’”
The fight to spare a life
Mr. 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.
In those 15 years, 32 other men on Alabama’s death row were executed. One had killed a Montgomery police officer. Another had robbed and killed a married couple. Another had killed a family of four.
Each man was put to death on a Thursday, always a Thursday. In the moments before his execution, those he left behind on death row would bang on their doors, in faint hope that he might hear their clatter of solidarity.
All the while, Mr. Woods’s family fought to have his life spared. A succession of lawyers made a succession of desperate arguments, including that his legal representation during the trial and the appeals process had been deficient or negligent. None found purchase.
As Mr. Woods swayed between hope and despair, he corresponded with family members. He wrote poetry. He converted to Islam. He waited.
Finally, on Jan. 30, 2020, prison officials presented Mr. Woods with a one-page document to sign. It stipulated that he was to be executed on March 5 and advised him to provide contact information for a funeral home.
No similar letter has been sent to Mr. Spencer. Unlike Mr. 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 Mr. Woods’s 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, who had recently ended her support of the death penalty after reading the 2018 memoir of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent three decades on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated.
Turning Ms. Faraino’s kitchen into a command center, they scoured court documents, interviewed witnesses and capitalized on the media contacts of Ms. Starr’s husband, Bart Starr Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr. Celebrities of varying fame and notoriety — including Martin Luther King III, Kim Kardashian and the rapper T.I. — were soon championing Mr. Woods’s cause.
Ms. Faraino was troubled that more people seemed to pay attention to Mr. Woods’s story only when two affluent Southern white women got involved. “A person on death row should not live or die based on whether the ‘right’ activists, politicians and celebrities speak out on their behalf,” she said.
Finally, March 5. The Thursday.
It was a somber day for Andrea Elders, the daughter of Officer Carlos Owen. The thought of that evening’s execution did not fill her with joy — though she felt that Mr. Woods deserved death for taking the life of a father whose last words to her had been, “I love you. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
No one in her family was cheering, she said. “It’s just: He broke the law and made a bad choice and that was his punishment.”
At about 4 p.m., Mr. Woods said his final goodbyes to his family and disappeared behind a door. By now, corrections officials were far down their 17-page list of execution procedures. The execution team had rehearsed. The intravenous equipment had been tested. The veins of the condemned man had been checked.
Ms. Faraino, meanwhile, was frantically trying to have the 6 p.m. execution called off, in part by persuading a relative of one of the murdered officers to ask Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, for compassion.
With less than an hour to go, Kimberly Chisholm Simmons, a sister of Officer Harley Chisholm, returned her call. “He didn’t kill my brother,” Ms. Simmons told Ms. Faraino, according to a recording of their call. “He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Ms. 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,” Ms. Simmons said.
With Ms. Simmons still on the line, Ms. Faraino tried to reach the State of Alabama.
“You have reached the Alabama Department of Corrections. Please listen to the following options …”
“Thank you for calling the office of the Alabama attorney general, Steve Marshall. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. …”
“You have reached Governor Ivey’s state office. We are either in a meeting or …”
Ms. Faraino finally managed to send the governor a statement from Ms. Simmons that asserted Mr. Woods’s 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 Mr. Woods’s fate.
At 7:35, word came that Governor Ivey had decided that clemency for Mr. Woods was “unwarranted.” A few minutes later, the Supreme Court lifted the stay, allowing the execution to proceed.
There was nothing more to do. At 8:08, a disconsolate Ms. Faraino sent an email to one of the lawyers who had fought for Mr. Woods’s life. All it said was:
“It’s over Alicia. They are executing him.”
The final minutes
The ritual resumed.
The condemned man was strapped to a gurney of white sheets and black restraints. The prison warden read aloud the death warrant, then asked whether there were any final words. No.
Prison officials checked the integrity of the IV lines one last time. Then, at 8:38, there began to flow a saline solution with midazolam hydrochloride, which is intended to render the condemned unconscious.
The man lifted his head and shoulders, as if straining to see into one of the witness galleries. He moved his lips. He held up an index finger. Then his head lowered.
After a few minutes, a member of the execution team stepped forward to assess the condemned man’s awareness. First, by saying the man’s name; second, by stroking his eyelashes; third, by pinching his arm.
Once unconsciousness was confirmed, the rest of the chemicals began to flow through the IV lines: a muscle relaxant called rocuronium bromide, and potassium chloride, to induce cardiac arrest.
Nathaniel 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.
Cydney Tucker and Matt Kay contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière and Susan Campbell Beachy contributed research.