Nathaniel Woods’ Execution Reinvigorates Death Penalty Debate
“The actions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of the State of Alabama are reprehensible…”
The State of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods for the 2004 murders of three Birmingham police officers despite court challenges and intervention from multiple human rights groups and civil rights leaders.
The case caused an uproar because his co-defendant testified that Woods did not have a gun and ran away once the shooting began. Justice groups had also questioned the quality of his legal representation after his court-appointed attorney abandoned Woods in the middle of his appeal against the death penalty.
Martin Luther King III said, “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.”
The case was unusual in multiple ways. Woods was not actually convicted of killing anyone rather he was convicted for being an accomplice to the triple murder.
Additionally, the jury failed to come to a unanimous decision, and two jurors voted to spare the defendant’s life. However, a judge elected to sentence Woods to death, a practice currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
“Under Alabama law, someone who helps kill a police officer is just as guilty as the person who directly commits the crime,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. “Since 1983, Alabama has executed two individuals for being an accomplice to capital murder.”
While the many public advocates of Woods’ case may not have succeeded in this case, it has renewed public debate on racial injustice in America.
Representative Ayanna Pressley tweeted, “this INJUSTICE system is racist, sexist & xenophobic. The trauma inflicted on Nathaniel Woods’ family will last for generations. We need a system that centers shared power, freedom, equality, safety & dignity. We need a People’s Justice Guarantee.”
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 84% of Alabama executions in the modern era were for crimes against white victims despite only 20% of homicide victims being white. Only two of the 12 jurors in Woods’s case were black even though the case was adjudicated in a majority-black county.
While death penalty executions are down across the country, Alabama has sentenced more people to death per capita since 1976 than any other state. 1 in 7 people executed in Alabama was later exonerated.
The state’s poor record and the Woods case has attracted renewed attention to the state of the Alabama judicial system. Prominent activists, politicians, and even celebrities took to Twitter to plead Woods’s case and continued to call for change after his execution.
Kim Kardashian West has recently championed criminal justice issues and tweeted to her 63 million followers, “Nate will die for a crime another man confessed to and says Nate had nothing to do with. My heart and prayers are with Nate and his family and all the advocates who worked tirelessly to save his life.”
Alabama’s justice system took the life of Nathaniel Woods, but his case stirred calls for reform and reinvigorated calls to abolish the death penalty.
Representative Ayanna Pressley called for her People’s Justice Guarantee (H.R.4052) to be passed which she proposed in July 2019.
30 Democrats co-sponsored the bill, and Senator Dick Durbin sponsored the bill in the Republican-controlled Senate. Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the legislation.
Pressley wrote the bill in response to Attorney General William Barr ordering the Justice Department to reinstate the federal death penalty.
The legislation faces an uphill battle in the current Republican-controlled Senate, but former Republican Representative Justin Amash has called on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to put forward the bill.
Alabama’s death penalty law, which allowed a judge to execute Nathaniel Woods despite a non-unanimous jury vote is also under Supreme Court review.