Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.

The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center