‘100% innocent’: Supporters react to Nathaniel Woods’ execution in 2004 cop killings

ATMORE, Ala. — Nathaniel Woods had no last words as Alabama prison officials prepared to execute him Thursday night for the 2004 murders of three Birmingham police officers -- a crime the state admits was committed by another man.

Instead, the 44-year-old Woods appeared to arrange his hands in a sign of his Islamic faith, The Associated Press reported. As the lethal injection began moving through his veins, his arm jerked against the restraints and his breathing became labored.

Woods was pronounced dead at 9:01 p.m. CST at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, Woods requested a final meal of sweet potatoes, spinach, a chicken patty, a chicken leg quarter, cooked apples, fries, two oranges and an orange-flavored drink, ABC News reported. He took just one bite of the chicken and the remainder of the meal went uneaten.

In the days leading up to Woods’ execution, which was briefly stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday night, the hashtag #SaveNate started making the rounds as celebrities, activists and politicians on the state and national level urged Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to grant Woods clemency. He did not pull the trigger on July 17, 2004, they argued, and he had actually surrendered to Birmingham police Officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, 40, Carlos Winston “Curly” Owen, 58, and Charles Robert Bennett, 33, before they were gunned down.

Kerry Spencer, who lived in a Birmingham drug house with Woods and another man, opened fire on the officers as they served a misdemeanor assault warrant on Woods. A fourth officer, Michael Collins, was wounded but survived.

Family members of the dead officers saw the case differently.

“Nathaniel Woods chose his fate on June 17, 2004,” Starr Sidelinker said in a statement on behalf of Chisholm’s sister. “That horrific day could have been prevented if he had any kind of compassion or respect for law enforcement.”

According to the AP, Owen’s son, Greg Owen, described his father as a grandfather trying to protect the city in which he grew up.

“Instead of going home that day, he was ambushed, murdered and died on the floor of a filthy drug house,” Greg Owen wrote.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Woods, who they accused of masterminding the killings, acted as bait for the officers, whom the men suspected would be coming to the apartment they shared, and from which they and another man sold drugs. They said Woods lured the men inside, where Spencer waited with a high-powered SKS assault rifle.

Woods’ supporters, including Spencer, say that was not the case. Spencer, who now awaits his own execution for the officers’ deaths, wrote from Alabama’s death row that Woods was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent,” Spencer’s handwritten letter states. “I know this to be a fact because I’m the person that shot and killed all three of the officers that Nathaniel was subsequently charged and convicted of murdering.”

Spencer wrote that Woods did not deserve to be unjustly imprisoned, much less executed, for the crime.

“I pray that my words don’t fall on blind eyes or deaf ears,” he wrote. “Don’t allow another innocent man (to) be executed if you can do something to put a stop to it. This is my fervent prayer.”

Prosecutors also pointed to a drawing and song lyrics they found in Woods’ cell prior to trial that they claimed showed him bragging about the killings. Michael Harriot, senior writer for The Root, pointed out on Twitter that Woods didn’t write the lyrics.

“I read Nathaniel Woods’ file before he was murdered by the state of Alabama,” Harriot tweeted Thursday night. “One of the things they used against him was a song he had ’apparently written’ confessing to the murderers.

"I immediately recognized they were lyrics to a Dr. Dre song from 1992.”

Woods’ high-profile supporters also included the elder son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“In just two days, your state, and the state I was born in, is set to kill a man who is very likely innocent,” Martin Luther King III wrote in a letter dated Tuesday.

King wrote that Ivey’s office had denied him a chance for a private phone conversation with the governor. He added that Woods’ case “appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts” and that it could “produce an irreversible injustice.”

“Are you willing to allow a potentially innocent man to be executed?” King asked.

Ivey remained mum through the day Thursday, appearing unwilling to weigh in on Woods’ execution. In a response to Woods’ request for clemency, made through general counsel William Parker Jr., Ivey said she would allow it to proceed.

“Governor Ivey does not presently intend to exercise her powers of commutation or reprieve in this case,” Parker wrote in the response, which was obtained by ABC News. “While Governor Ivey reserves the right to grant clemency at any time before an execution is carried out, she has determined, based on her review of the complete record, including the matters presented in your letter, that clemency for Mr. Woods at this hour is unwarranted.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who earlier in the week criticized the “last-minute move afoot to ‘save’ cop killer Nathaniel Woods,” was much more vocal Thursday night.

“Tonight, justice has been served,” Marshall wrote in a statement. “Nathaniel Woods, one of two cop-killers in ‘the bloodiest day in Birmingham Police Department history,’ has met his just fate.”

Marshall said that Chisholm, Owen, Bennett and Collins were working to protect the city of Birmingham when they were cut down in a “barrage of armor-piercing bullets.”

“Three officers were murdered that day: Officer Carlos Owen, Officer Harley Chisholm, and Officer Charles Bennett. A fourth officer, Officer Michael Collins, was injured but survived; however, now-Sergeant Collins would tell you, his life was forever changed," Marshall said. “Tonight, we lift up Officer Collins as well as the families of Officers Owen, Chisholm, and Bennett. And may we also remain grateful -- in fact, prayerful -- for law enforcement throughout our state.”

King, who spent the day Thursday rallying support for Woods, spoke out against state officials and the high court following the inmate’s execution.

“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,” King wrote. “It makes a mockery of justice and constitutional guarantees to a fair trial.”

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama also released a statement saying he had reached out Thursday afternoon to Ivey’s office to express his concerns over the Woods case.

“I think everyone knows my background and that I believe strongly in justice,” 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.”

Other Woods supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union, presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, as well as celebrities and activists like Kim Kardashian West and Mia Farrow.

Even former NFL star O.J. Simpson, who was infamously acquitted in the brutal 1994 killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, weighed in, calling the execution “just wrong.”

“Everyone deserves a fair trial and appeal,” Simpson said in a video he posted on Twitter. “Come on, Alabama, do what’s right.”

Woods’ sister, Pamela Woods, and their father, Nathaniel Woods Sr., traveled to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on Wednesday to hand-deliver letters asking Ivey to halt the execution.

“We really just want people to see that he really is innocent, that he didn’t have anything to do with the murders of those officers,” Pamela Woods said, according to the Alabama Political Reporter. “We do feel really bad for what happened that day. We don’t wish that on anyone, for their family to have to deal with that. It was very unfortunate that the shooter did what he did.

“But the main point is that Nathaniel had no parts in those actions of another man, Kerry Spencer.”

Prior to her brother’s death Thursday night, Pamela Woods and other family members stood outside the prison and proclaimed his innocence to reporters covering the execution.

“He is actually innocent,” Pamela Woods said, according to the AP. “Kerry Spencer, the actual shooter, has stated many times that he did it on his own with no help for anyone.”

As she spoke, Pamela Woods held a page from her brother’s trial transcript that shows Nathaniel Woods was surrendering to police when Spencer began firing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit shot down Woods’ pleas for clemency earlier this week. Woods argued in his appeal that the state rushed his execution date because he failed to choose the state’s newly selected method of execution, nitrogen hypoxia, as an alternative to lethal injection.

His attorneys also argued that while the state informed him that electing nitrogen hypoxia would affect the method of execution, prison officials failed to tell him it would also affect the timing of his death.

Because the state does not yet have a nitrogen hypoxia protocol in place, execution dates for those inmates who choose that manner of death cannot move forward. Subsequently, inmates who opt for lethal injection and whose appeals have been exhausted could see their execution dates moved up.

Prison officials set Woods’ execution date in late January.

>> Related story: Execution date set for man convicted in 2004 murders of 3 Alabama police officers

“Woods alleges that the state violated his right to procedural due process by failing to tell him during the election period that it did not have a nitrogen hypoxia protocol and by failing to help him access his attorney during the election period,” the appeals court’s ruling states. “He also alleges that the state violated his right to equal protection of law by moving for his execution before the execution of similarly situated inmates and by helping the plaintiffs in In re: Alabama Lethal Injection Protocol Litigation access their attorneys but not doing the same for him.”

The cited 2012 lawsuit was brought by death row inmates challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol. The suit was made moot in 2018 when the remaining inmates who filed the action chose to die by nitrogen instead.

“Woods contends that ‘targeting (him) for speedier execution, and thereby discriminating against (him), based solely on method of execution is arbitrary and wanton conduct,’ and that Alabama’s lethal injection protocol violates his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment,” the court ruling states.

An innocent man?

Prosecutors argued at Woods’ trial that he hated cops. They called to the stand numerous witnesses to that fact and told jurors that he and Spencer plotted to kill the officers, who they suspected would be coming to the apartment they shared.

That apartment doubled as a drug house.

Owen had already been to the apartment twice the morning of the shooting. Chisholm and Collins were with him for the second visit, during which Owen was looking for Tyran “Bubba” Cooper, a third man who lived at and sold drugs from the apartment.

“The State established that Woods and Spencer had engaged in a hostile, profanity-laced argument with Officers Owen and Collins on the morning of the shootings, and that Woods threatened Officer Owen by stating: ‘Take off that badge and I will (expletive) you up,’” court records state.

Witnesses said Owen complied and took off his badge as though to fight Woods, but a woman who saw what was happening talked him into backing down, the records say.

Two female acquaintances of the men testified that, after Owen and Collins left to confirm the outstanding warrant for Woods’ arrest, Woods said he would kill the cops. A man who was there with them testified that Spencer said he would “light ‘em up,” and Woods concurred.

Woods’ then-girlfriend testified that she tried to get Woods to leave the apartment with her but he said he wanted to stay with Spencer in case the officers returned, according to the records.

The woman, who also testified against Woods about his alleged hatred of cops, recanted her statements at one point.

“I made that up. I told y’all what you wanted to hear,” she testified at a pretrial hearing, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Woods’ appeal lawyers argued that police threatened the woman with a parole violation if she didn’t testify against him.

Spencer, who spoke to The Appeal from Alabama’s death row last month, denied any plot to kill the officers.

The admitted gunman said he shot the officers because he awoke from a nap to see a gun pointed at him and Woods being beaten by the cops, whom he accused of harassment and police misconduct.

“There was no plan to kill the police,” Spencer said, according to The Appeal. “We were scared as (expletive). It was a (expletive) up situation. It was the scariest moment of my life. We could’ve died.”

Court records obtained by The Appeal accuse two of the slain officers, Chisholm and Owen, of corruption and violence. Woods’ defense attorneys have argued that the shooting was the culmination of years of misconduct, including an alleged bribery scheme.

The judge at Woods’ trial refused to allow evidence of police misconduct to be presented to the jury.

The records include a 2012 affidavit from Cooper, who claimed he paid the officers cash to look the other way as he conducted his drug business out of the apartment where the officers were later killed, The Appeal reported.

In the affidavit, Cooper said he began paying Chisholm and Owen $300 to $400 per week in 2002 “to protect (his) drug business and to make sure that no one else sold drugs in (his) area of Birmingham.” He claimed the officers demanded more money after he was accused in April 2004 of attempted murder.

When he began having trouble making the payments, Cooper said the officers regularly harassed the men, often getting into arguments with Woods when they would show up looking for their cash.

Cooper never testified at either man’s trial, saying later that the police had threatened him to keep him quiet.

The Appeal reported that Cooper last month reaffirmed the things he said in the affidavit and added that he had begun to stay away from the drug house a week or two before the shooting because he was behind on his payments to Chisholm and Owen.

“I feel like it could’ve been avoided,” Cooper told The Appeal in a phone interview. “I feel like if I was there, it would’ve never happened.”

The day of the crime

Testimony at trial indicated that the trouble really began on June 17 when Woods screamed obscenities at the officers and demanded they leave on their second visit to the apartment. The officers, angered by his behavior, searched the National Crime Information Center database and found an outstanding warrant for Woods out of nearby Fairfield.

According to Collins’ testimony, the officers went back a third and final time that afternoon to serve the warrant. No warrant was recovered from the scene after the shooting, and eyewitnesses said they did not see any of the officers holding a piece of paper, The Appeal reported.

Owen and Collins went to the rear door of the apartment, while Chisholm and Bennett approached the front door.

“Nathaniel Woods came to the rear door with the screen door still in place between the officers and Woods,” court documents state. “Officer Owen informed Woods that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Woods responded with, ‘(Expletive) you. I don’t have no warrant.’”

At that point, Chisholm went around to the back door and, through the screen door, showed Woods a report that showed the warrant out of nearby Fairfield, along with a photo of Woods, the documents say.

Woods claimed the photo was not him and walked back into the recesses of the apartment. Chisholm opened the screen door and went inside, followed by Owen and Collins.

According to a 2014 interview with AL.com, Collins recalled that Chisholm got Woods down on the floor in order to handcuff him. Woods said, “I give up. I give up. Just don’t spray me with that Mace.”

As they attempted to take Woods into custody, Bennett radioed: “They are coming out the front,” according to both Collins and the court records.

Collins turned to the back door because the other officers and Woods were blocking his ability to go through the apartment to the front.

“Officer Collins turned and was leaving through the back screen door of the apartment to assist Officer Bennett at the front when he heard gunfire from inside the apartment and felt something hit him on his right side,” the court documents state. “He stood outside the apartment for a few seconds, and put out a radio broadcast, ‘Shots fired. Double aught. Officer down.’”

Collins ran for cover behind a patrol car.

“I can’t say it as fast as I thought it, but I was like ‘Hey dummy, you’re standing in the open and somebody’s shooting at you,’” Collins told AL.com.

He told the news site that he kept radioing for help, but his radio kept giving him a busy signal.

“I’ll never forget that sound,” Collins said. “I called them (the other officers) on the radio but they didn’t answer. I knew then. I didn’t think there was much hope.”

From behind the patrol car, he saw a man standing just outside the back door, firing an SKS rifle at him, court documents say. Collins did not know Spencer, but later identified him as the man shooting the rifle.

“That was the first time I saw him. I knew it wasn’t Nathaniel, and I was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’” Collins told AL.com.

When backup officers arrived, Collins moved toward the apartment, but a fellow officer stopped him from going inside.

“It was a good thing,” Collins said. “That would be images I would have seen forever.”

Each of the slain officers had been shot multiple times. According to testimony from a forensic pathologist, stippling on their faces indicated Chisholm and Bennett were shot at close range.

Owen and Chisholm fell in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, where they had been trying to handcuff Woods, and Bennett was gunned down at the front door.

Officer Hugh Butler, who arrived after the shootings, testified about what he saw that afternoon. Bennett was on the ground just outside the apartment.

“‘I looked down and saw his eyes wide open,” Butler testified, according to court records. “His pupils were blown and he had a hole in his face with a little bit of smoke coming out of it.”

The pathologist, Dr. Gary Simmons, testified that Bennett “sustained a very close-range gunshot wound below his left eye, which passed through his brain case and portions of the brain before exiting though the back of his skull,” court records indicate. “He further testified that Officer Bennett sustained a gunshot wound to his chest that lacerated his heart and impacted his liver, esophagus, aorta, right adrenal gland and spine, but did not exit his body, and entrance and exit wounds on his arm associated with a third gunshot.”

Owen and Chisholm were “pretty obviously dead” on the kitchen floor, Butler testified.

Simmons told the court Chisholm and Owen suffered several grazing wounds, as well as multiple penetrating wounds to their backs. Chisholm was also shot in the side and Owen was shot in the arm.

“Responding officers found an SKS assault rifle in the grass outside, a handgun in the bathroom and two long guns in a bedroom,” documents obtained by AL.com say. “The officers’ bulletproof vests had been pierced, typical of damage sustained by high-powered rifle fire.”

Despite the fact that Woods never fired upon the officers, prosecutors offered ample evidence that he appeared a willing participant in the carnage.

“The State established that Woods and Spencer had engaged in a hostile, profanity-laced argument with Officers Owen and Collins on the morning of the shootings, and that Woods threatened Officer Owen by stating: ‘Take off that badge and I will (expletive) you up,’” court records state.

Two female acquaintances of the men testified that, after Owen and Collins left to confirm the outstanding warrant for Woods’ arrest, Woods said he would kill the cops. A man who was there with them testified that Spencer said he would “light ‘em up,” and Woods concurred.

Woods’ girlfriend tried to get him to leave the apartment with her, but he said he wanted to stay with Spencer in case the officers returned.

“Officer Collins testified that when the officers returned to the apartment to arrest Woods, a man who had been outside said that he wanted no part of what was to take place,” court documents say. “When the officers told Woods that they had a warrant for his arrest and attempted to take him into custody, Woods cursed them and refused to come outside. He told the officers, ‘If you come in here, we’ll (expletive) you up.’”

‘NATE $ NOOKIE’

After the shooting, Woods and Spencer fled the apartment and ran to a neighbor’s house for shelter. Witnesses who saw Woods there described him as calm, even as he said, “They (expletive) with the wrong (expletive). We shot their (expletive).”

To Spencer, Woods said, “You came through for me,” witnesses testified.

“When Woods was located, he was sitting with other men on the porch of (a neighbor’s) house nearby, apparently ‘very relaxed,’” the court documents obtained by AL.com state. “He gave his full name and was found to have two .22 caliber bullets in his pocket. Kerry Spencer was eventually pulled out of (the neighbor’s) attic.”

After the men were arrested, Owen’s service weapon was found hidden behind a heater near where Woods was sitting when officers arrived, court records show. Spencer gave conflicting statements as to who took the gun before fleeing.

Marshall, the attorney general, wrote in a letter to Ivey this week that Woods made incriminating statements while in jail awaiting trial and that, six months after the shooting, a deputy found a drawing on the wall of his cell.

“The drawing depicts two men shooting firearms. One man is shooting an assault rifle and three flaming skulls are depicted in the blasts from that weapon, and the other man is shooting two handguns,” Marshall’s letter says. “The drawing contains a heading at the top, ‘NATE $ NOOKIE,’ and depicts street signs at an intersection of ‘18th Street and Ensley.’”

Read Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s letter to the governor below.

Nate and Nookie were Woods’ and Spencer’s nicknames. The location depicted in the drawing, 18th Avenue in the Ensley section of Birmingham, is where the officers were killed.

The Appeal reported that, in the decade since Chisholm, Owen and Bennett were killed, Woods’ appellate attorneys have compiled evidence that shows that the men did not conspire to kill the officers. The attorneys have also said that several key witnesses, including Cooper, either provided false testimony or did not testify at all.

They have claimed that Woods’ trial attorneys, who had never handled a capital murder case before, were inadequate and that his first two appellate attorneys failed to raise these issues and missed deadlines by which they were required to file Woods’ appeals.

“It’s a travesty,” Woods’ final appellate lawyer, J.D. Lloyd, said. “His case has just been so mishandled 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.”