A 21st Century Lynching: Nathaniel Woods Executed by the State of Alabama

Shortly after 9 pm on March 5, in the infamous hellhole that is the Holman “Correctional Institute,” the state of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods, a 43-year-old Black man. From 2004, when he was beaten, arrested, and charged with the murder of three Birmingham cops, through the sadistic torment of his last hours, Nathaniel Woods was abused and finally murdered by this system’s unjust and racist-to-the core police and legal setup.

A 21st-Century Lynching

On the night of June 17, 2004, four white Birmingham cops with a misdemeanor warrant came looking for Nathaniel Woods, then 28 years old. They had harassed Woods earlier that day, then came after him at a house in an overwhelmingly Black and largely poor neighborhood.

Kerry Spencer, a companion of Woods, later said (at Spencer’s own trial) that he was asleep in the house when he heard a commotion. He came out of his room and saw Woods walking out of the kitchen, “with a knot on his head, holding his eyes.” Woods had been beaten and maced by the marauding pigs, but Spencer didn’t know that yet. Spencer said that he picked up his rifle and began shooting in self-defense at four men in the room. His shots killed three of the cops and wounded the fourth.

There has been absolutely no evidence or testimony, at the time of Nathaniel Woods’ trial or since, that Woods had fired any shots or even been armed. Spencer has said that he alone shot the cops. But, along with Spencer, Woods was charged for the murder of the three cops, facing a possible death sentence.

When Woods went to trial in 2005, prosecutors alleged that he plotted the cops’ deaths by luring them to the house so Spencer could kill them. In other words, they claimed that the cops who were on record as having followed and harassed Woods were being manipulated by him.

Woods’ trial was filled with wild allegations, supposedly backed up by testimony from jailhouse snitches, about what Woods allegedly thought and supposedly said. According to CNN, the lead prosecutor alleged that Woods “bragged about the shootings (supposedly to other prisoners in the county jail where he was held), threatened a sheriff’s deputy, and composed drawings and songs boasting of the killings.

An article on the website The North Star reported that during Woods’ trial “Witnesses testified that he spoke of his hatred of police and a so-called handwriting expert claimed Woods wrote down the lyrics of a Dr. Dre song that called police ‘pigs.’ Prosecutors also called on the victims’ widows, who expressed their support for the death penalty.”

Whether or not the testimony from snitches was true, it is totally outrageous for claims about a young Black man’s contempt for the police to be used as supposed “evidence” for guilt in a death penalty case. By that standard, millions of youths in America could be sent to prison. Many people call the police “pigs” because, as these Alabama cops demonstrated yet again, they are murdering, brutalizing, racist pigs! And the vengeful desires of “victims” should have no place at all in a courtroom.1 Woods was the target of a modern-day lynching.

The jury convicted Nathaniel Woods of murder. Some jurors disagreed on handing down the death penalty to Nathaniel Woods, but he was sentenced to death anyway by a 10-2 jury vote. Alabama is the only state in the country that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty.

A 15-Year Nightmare

Nathaniel Woods had a series of court-appointed lawyers who consistently undermined his case throughout much of the trial and appeals phases of his ordeal. When Woods was offered a plea bargain on a lesser charge, his trial lawyer—who had never had a capital case before—told him to refuse it. The lawyer told Woods, incorrectly, that he could not get the death penalty since he did not pull the trigger during the violent confrontation. It was a fatal mistake.

Woods’ first set of appeal lawyers never challenged his conviction in state courts, which meant his case would never be “seriously considered,” as noted in an article on the website The Appeal. Other appeals lawyers for Woods failed to file key papers on time. These included documents alleging that important witnesses testified falsely (or not at all) because of deals they made with police, and that the four cops had been deeply involved in the drug trade.2 The Alabama attorney general declared that the documents were not admissible in the case because Woods’ appeals lawyers had missed their deadline.

Appeals courts did not see those documents. They also didn’t see evidence that showed how neither Woods nor Spencer planned to “lure” police anywhere, or evidence alleging that testimonies provided by witnesses who were given deals by prosecutors were lies. These issues were finally raised by J.D. Lloyd, Woods’ final appeal attorney, who got on the case in 2017. Again, Alabama courts refused to allow them to be admitted as evidence.

J.D. Lloyd told the website The North Star shortly before the execution that the case against Nathaniel Woods was “a travesty” and “it’s just a shame that we’re at the point of executing a man who was not the triggerman, whose case has so many issues that no court has considered.”

In the past 15 years, Woods’ case had been reviewed by higher courts at least nine times. This does not mean Woods received a “fair trial”—it is an indictment of the U.S. legal system and its ability to persecute and railroad people all the way to the death chamber while maintaining a flimsy facade of “due process.”

The Whole Damn System Is Guilty

Widespread support for Nathaniel Woods rose up across the country as his execution date neared and more people became aware of the horrible injustices of his arrest, trial, and sentencing. Over 100,000 people signed a petition demanding a stop to his execution. Prominent people such as Martin Luther King III and Kim Kardashian West called on Alabama Governor Kay Ivey to intercede and stop the execution. Kimberly Simmons, a sister of one of the cops who were killed, wrote to the Alabama governor asking that Woods not be executed.

But Alabama’s Christian fascist officials gave a cold-blooded response. Attorney General Steve Marshall said on March 4, “The only injustice in the case of Nathaniel Woods is that which was inflicted on those four policemen that terrible day.” Last-minute attempts to stay the execution were denied by Governor Ivey and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The blood of Nathaniel Woods is on their hands, as it is on the hands of the cops and prison guards who tormented him for 15 years… the district attorney who prosecuted him… jurors who sentenced him to death even though he killed no one… the various appeals court and U.S. Supreme Court judges who upheld his kangaroo trial… the police and officials who suppressed evidence during the years of trial… the cops’ families who demanded his execution as retribution…and Governor Ivey, who insisted on carrying out this unjust sentence.

The blood of Nathaniel Woods is on this already blood-drenched system of racist injustice.

1. In the article “Bob Avakian on the Law, Justice and Ending Oppression and Exploitation,” Bob Avakian breaks down, among other things, what is wrong with the idea of “victims’ rights,” particularly as applied to criminal proceedings. [back]

2. Prosecution coercion and threats against potential witnesses in the trial of Nathaniel Woods are described in a detailed article on the website The Appeal, Alabama Prepares to Execute a Man Whose Case Is Haunted by Claims of Police Misconduct.”

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