Nathaniel Woods: Deserves no sentence less than death? (March 11)

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

“The murder of three police officers deserves no sentence less than death.” That was the conclusion of a 14-page letter sent to the Governor of Alabama by the state’s Attorney General Steve Marshall. The 14-page letter detailed the events that led to the police murders in 2004. The letter also begged the governor not to succumb to outside pressure and deny Nathaniel Woods’ request for a reprieve of his execution.

The outside pressure was initiated by celebrities, civil rights icons, and anti-death penalty activists who insisted the state of Alabama was about to execute an innocent man. Woods’ innocence was based off statements made by death row inmate Kerry Spencer, who admitted to killing the three police officers inside the “drug house” he operated with Woods and another man named Fernando Belser. Spencer said Woods didn’t have a gun and never fired a shot. Spencer said while he was sleeping on the couch, with a gun by his side, the police came to serve a warrant for Woods. Spencer heard commotion, hopped up, saw people with their guns drawn, and started shooting.

Marshall, who was also the district attorney that tried the Woods case, acknowledged during the 2005 trial that Woods never fired a shot. Marshall claimed the police officers went to the front door to serve the warrant. (The police were at the “drug house” earlier that day and Woods told them to get off his property and threatened them. This was according to the testimony of Marquita McClure, Woods’ then-girlfriend.) The police informed Woods they had a warrant and instructed Woods to come outside. Woods refused and warned the officers if they came after him, they’ll get “F____ed up.” Woods suddenly ran deeper into the “drug house” and the officers pursued him. None of the officers had their guns drawn, but one carried mace. Woods surrendered to avoid being maced. Then Spencer came from another room and shot the officers in the back with an assault rifle. (This was according to the testimony of Fernando Belser, who was present during the shooting.) Woods attempted to flee out the front door, but he noticed another police officer outside. Woods yelled to Spencer, “We got another one out here!” And Spencer shot the outside officer in the leg. (This was according to the testimony of the officer who was shot.)

The public outcry over Woods’ innocence was based on the fact that he did not kill the police officers. But a courtroom does not determine innocence; it determines whether or not the accused is guilty of specific charges. Woods was charged with four counts of capital murder, three counts of intentionally causing the death of a police officer in the line of duty, and one count of killing two or more persons pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct. Under Alabama law, someone who helps kill a police officer is just as guilty as the person who directly commits the crime. (Alabama has executed two individuals since 1983 for being an accomplice to capital murder.)

The Governor of Alabama found no reason to halt the execution. (Neither did the appellate court nor the U.S. Supreme Court) Woods was executed on March 5.

But here’s the problem.

The state of Alabama permits juries to impose the death penalty without a unanimous vote. The trial judge in the Woods sentencing accepted a death recommendation from a 10-2 jury. Two jurors, who convicted Woods, thought Woods deserved less than death (life without parole) because he didn’t pull the trigger. Most proponents of capital punishment believe the death penalty should be used sparingly and the jury’s recommendation for a death sentence must be unanimous. So, the two dissenters should have spared Woods from the death penalty and he should have been sentenced to life without parole.

Alabama’s practice of non-unanimous death-sentencing was the actual culprit here. It’s a classic example of what political philosopher John Stuart Mill called, “The tyranny of the majority.”

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