The Crime and Controversy of Nathaniel Woods

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Nathaniel Woods’s execution earlier this month has stirred nationwide controversy.

Kate Heister, News Writer

     On March 5th, in Alabama (the only state in the US where the death penalty can be given without unanimous jury), an African American man named Nathaniel Woods was executed. Alabama as a state has a history of having many unfail legal cases when it comes to people of color. For many different reasons, Woods’ case was looked at and then passed over by the Supreme Court. He became the first person executed in 2020. However, was his punishment fit for his crime?

     The death penalty is something that has been discussed for years. It’s been outlawed in and then reinstated. It has been protested against and supported. Its legality changes state to state. In states like Delaware, it is unconstitutional, but it is used in the state of Alabama. When asked his views on the death penalty, Sam Ritschel ‘22 says that “It really depends on the situation. I don’t wish to condemn anyone to death but sometimes people don’t want to change how they are. For instance, a serial killer. If they show absolutely no remorse or valid reason for those deaths then I think the death sentence is acceptable. If it’s a case where the person is remorseful and wants to make themselves better, they should have the chance to be better than the death sentence.” and Audrey Bilek, 23’ says “I think that the death penalty should be happening in extreme cases, but not as much as it is happening now.” The death penalty is something that must be used with caution, if at all. And the cases that end in death sentences are ones that should be looked at carefully, and shouldn’t end in controversy.

     Nathaniel Woods was a man on death row with a story that is very controversial. Nathaniel Woods was arrested for the murder of 3 police officers in 2004, and he was tried in 2005. Supposedly, he and his roommate Kerry Spencer were selling cocaine. When four officers were sent to their apartment for a minor misdemeanor, Woods assaulted the officers while Spencer shot and killed three of them. The claim that Woods didn’t actually kill anyone is supported by both Spencer, who is still on death row, and the surviving officer, Michael Collins. Spencer has stated that “Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent. I know that 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 murder. Nathaniel Woods doesn’t even deserve to be incarcerated, much less executed.” Spencer admitted to killing all three police officers, and stated that “Nate ran” away from the murders. In the past, he has claimed that it was self defense, saying that the officers attacked Woods, however this statement was permitted at trial. The fourth police officer, Michael Collins, has even stated that “I knew it wasn’t Nathaniel” who had fired at him. According to Officer Collins, Woods only helped to plan the ambush on the police officers. However, there is no evidence showing that he even helped with the planning, and there are claims that he ran away from the officers and didn’t help Spencer at all.

     So if Nathaniel Woods didn’t actually kill anyone back in 2004, then, firstly, why was he executed and, secondly, why is the man who is known to have killed at least three officers still alive? In the state of Alabama, if one assists someone in the killing of a police officer, one is just as guilty as the person who does kill the officer. Though this may not seem fair to some, this is a state law. Also, Alabama is known for having a problem in the justice system when it comes to race, so it is possible Nathaniel Woods’ case was treated unfairly. However, this still does not answer the question of why Kerry Spencer’s punishment was not as severe as Nathaniel Woods’. The answer here lies in a technicality in the law. Both Woods and Spencer were tried back in the early 2000s for their crimes. While Woods’ trial ended in a 10-2 ruling in favor of the death penalty, Spencer’s trial ended in the jury being in favor of life in prison without parole, unanimously. Spencer ended up on death row when the judge overrode the jury’s decision and sentenced Kerry Spencer to death. Both Spencer and Woods were kept on death row until 2017, where Alabama passed a law that got rid of a judge’s ability to override a unanimous death penalty case, which was only the case for Kerry Spencer’s case. The Supreme Court is now deciding the constitutionality of non-unanimous verdicts with the death penalty. Kerry Spencer’s sentence may be held out for an indefinite amount of time, or even declared illegal.

     To summarize, Kerry Spencer and Nathaniel Woods were arrested for killing three police officers and harming another one back in 2004. Evidence and witness statements showed that Woods only helped to plan the deaths of these officers, and the only murderer was Spencer. Both were eventually placed on death row. However, due to the different rulings of these cases, Woods was executed in March of 2020, while Spencer might not be executed at all, even though Spencer was the only real killer. But was Woods’ death really legal? Though Alabama state law says that Woods can be charged with the murder of the police officers, even though he didn’t, the Supreme Court has said otherwise. Woods’ court ruling goes along with the Felony Murder Rule, meaning that someone who was involved with a murder, but not the murderer, can be charged with first-degree murder. However, the Felony Murder Rule has been said to violate the 8th Amendment, as the defendant didn’t kill or mean to kill anyone. So how can he be charged with first-degree murder while not killing anyone? Is Alabama able to overlook this federal case legally? Sue Kampert, who is a Human Dynamics teacher at Friends, said, “I don’t think that state governments should be able to overturn Supreme Court Cases.” But this opinion isn’t the only one out there. The death penalty itself is something that is still controversial, and this case itself only adds to the fact that death is something that shouldn’t end in controversy.