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The New York Times Presents: 'To Live and Die in Alabama'

The New York Times examines the case of Nathaniel Woods, who was sentenced to death for his role in the murders of three Birmingham police officers fatally shot by someone else. The documentary is available here for New York Times subscribers in the U.S. or you can stream it on Hulu.

<i>[phone line rings]</i> <i>[ringing]</i> <i>[dramatic musical sting]</i> <i>[dramatic musical sting]</i> <i>[phone line rings]</i> <i>RECORDING: You have reached the Alabama Department of Corrections.</i> <i>Please listen to the following options.</i> <i>[line ringing]</i> <i>RECORDING: Thank you for calling the office of the...</i> <i>- Oh, Jesus. - Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.</i> <i>Our business hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.</i> <i>You have reached Governor Ivey’s legal office.</i> <i>We are either in a meeting—</i> <i>[whispers] Don’t give up.</i> <i>- What?!</i> <i>- No, no, no, no, no. - Stop!</i> <i>No, no, no, no, no.</i> <i>[light musical sting]</i> <i>[overlapping voices shouting]</i> <i>SPEAKER: Right here, right here!</i> [overlapping shouting, commotion] <i>REPORTER: The deadliest day</i> <i>for the Birmingham Police Department in its history.</i> <i>REPORTER: Three officers were shot and killed</i> <i>while they were trying to serve a warrant</i> <i>at a home in Ensley.</i> OFFICER: [indistinct] for you to get out that backyard. [overlapping shouting] <i>[police radio chatter]</i> <i>SPEAKER: Go ahead— try not to go [indistinct]</i> <i>SWAT team, just go ahead and give me two...</i> <i>[voice fades]</i> <i>REPORTER: Nathaniel Woods was present</i> <i>when three police officers were killed.</i> <i>REPORTER: Evidence in the case shows Woods did not kill the officers</i> <i>and that another man actually pulled the trigger.</i> <i>REPORTER: Both men were convicted and sentenced to death.</i> <i>REPORTER: The attorney general says the death penalty</i> <i>is the appropriate punishment.</i> KAY IVEY: Well, I will be briefed thoroughly by my attorneys and the court record and be very sure before I give the go-ahead. <i>REPORTER: Cop killer Nathaniel Woods.</i> <i>REPORTER: The man convicted of capital murder.</i> <i>REPORTER: Convicted of killing three police officers.</i> <i>REPORTER: Convicted cop-killer...</i> <i>REPORTER: Cop killer...</i> <i>REPORTER: Cop killer Nathaniel Woods.</i> [distant singing] INMATE: Ready? [murmurs] - Please understand that I am in prison and that I don’t have the freedom... [background chatter] And the opportunities that people like you have in the free world. I am confined within a cell, 23 hours a day because I am a death row inmate. I am considered the most dangerous... one of the most dangerous inmates here at Holman Correctional Facility because of the— the nature of my case. <i>[moody music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> - I’m Pamela Woods. I am the sister of Nathaniel Woods. Family calls him Quel. <i>[quiet music]</i> <i>HEAVENLY: My brother, he’s two years older than I am.</i> He’d be 45 in October. He is the oldest, and he took care of us. He looked out for us. PAMELA: It’s been years since I’ve been down here. I don’t—I don’t ever come here. I hate Alabama. I try not to go back at all. That’s just one of those places where, you know, you didn’t grow up with the best memories, so you just don’t wanna to come back. PAMELA: Wow, your uncle’s room was in that window over here to the left. Our room was in the far back. <i>Growing up in the household with my mom,</i> <i>she gave him hell.</i> <i>The way she abused him was...</i> <i>beyond...</i> I don’t know, it’s just not normal. You know, belt buckles where she put holes in his head and you could see blood just draining from his, you know, from his forehead. The abuse, I think, um... Made him into a person that felt like he had to care for other people. <i>I guess it made him feel like</i> <i>it was his responsibility to take care of us and others.</i> HEAVENLY: He’d beg my mom: “Mom, just beat me, please beat me.” He never wanted me to get a beating. <i>SPEAKER: I moved my son here</i> ‘cause of the abuse within the house, you know, the child abuse and all that stuff, and... <i>I went down to get Nate.</i> If he had stayed, he probably’d been better off, because he wouldn’t be in the situation that he in and right now at the moment. <i>[quiet music]</i> <i>PAMELA: He was still young.</i> <i>He didn’t have a high school diploma,</i> <i>but he was willing to do anything.</i> <i>He would work at a fast-food restaurant.</i> <i>He would do construction.</i> <i>He would do little odd end jobs here and there.</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>After he lost his job,</i> <i>Nate did start making extra money off of, you know,</i> <i>selling the crack cocaine and marijuana.</i> <i>It was something that he took on</i> <i>just to kinda pick up the slack</i> <i>until he found work.</i> <i>My brother and Kerry would sell for our cousin Bubba.</i> <i>PAMELA: So Bubba would be buying the crack cocaine</i> <i>and the marijuana in bulk</i> <i>but my brother and Kerry would be the ones to sell it</i> <i>in small packages like $5 and $10.</i> <i>So they were lower-tier drug dealers...</i> <i>But my brother wasn’t good at it.</i> He’d just either give away the money or give away the drugs. That’s not a good drug dealer. [laughs] So, um, so no, he wanted to just be straight and just get a job, and that’s when I had got him a job with a pastor. He was the doing the construction work. I mean, he was just doing— he was doing good. [crowd commotion] <i>REPORTER: The deadliest day</i> <i>for the Birmingham Police Department in its history.</i> <i>REPORTER: The officers were shot and killed.</i> <i>REPORTER: Birmingham police were trying to serve a warrant</i> <i>for Nathaniel Woods when shots rang out.</i> <i>Carlos Owen, Charles Bennett,</i> <i>and Harley Chisholm were all killed.</i> - Police was at my door looking for my brother. They tried to like break down the door. And they called ‘em and said, “We have him.” So they stopped trying to break the door down. But that’s how I found out. It was the worst news in my life. I’m like, no, not my brother. Not my brother. But...it was him. <i>[uneasy music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>SPEAKER: I think that a police officer now in this world</i> <i>is really viewed</i> as somebody who’s not a good person. <i>♪ ♪</i> It’s gotta be really hard in 2021 to be a police officer and to actually still continue to choose that as a profession, knowing how much you’re actually hated. Officer Carlos Owen was my father. He worked at the West Precinct. <i>[somber music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>My father actually grew up in Ensley,</i> <i>and he was raised in Ensley.</i> <i>And I think over time, drugs come into the community.</i> <i>There was a lot of drugs, and...</i> his goal was to get the drugs out. <i>People did know my father in the—in the community,</i> <i>and they would recognize him</i> even when he didn’t have his uniform on. And they used to call him Curly ‘cause he used to have curly hair. <i>I think policing should be done</i> <i>just like my father did.</i> <i>They should have compassion for people in their community.</i> They should try to keep them safe, try to keep the drug dealers off the streets. You should be able to sit on your front porch and socialize with your family and feel like you’re safe. <i>And I felt like that he did that in that community.</i> <i>When I was growing up as a little girl,</i> I never really thought about the crime or the danger for him being a police officer. So I just really never thought anything would happen to him. - [overlapping yelling] - [commotion] SPEAKER: Right here, right here. [glass shatters] SPEAKER: Now, go and look. Go and look. [overlapping chatter, shouting continues] - [indistinct] up there on the corner. Y’all back up far, okay? - [glass shatters] - [helicopter blades thrum] [sound echoes, fades] <i>[quiet music]</i> - I just heard a whole lotta noise, you know, everybody went to running and... - I was at home and it was— it was in disarray. As I say, it was police all over the place. - All this was blocked off. You couldn’t even come nowhere near here. - It was—it was just chaotic. <i>SPEAKER: My pager was going off, and I was at a traffic light.</i> So I read my pager and I-I really thought that I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing because it was saying that three officers had been shot in Ensley. [overlapping shouting] BYSTANDER: They called me at home and told me that somebody had got shot or killed or something down here. REPORTER: Any idea how many people? - I don’t know. Somebody said two, somebody said three. So I really don’t know. [helicopter blades thrumming] <i>ANNETTA: This was a neighborhood that I had grown up in.</i> <i>Went to school a block away from here.</i> <i>There were some officers already on scene.</i> <i>And when I approached the back door,</i> Carlos was the first one that I saw. <i>Chisholm was behind him,</i> <i>and Bennett was on the front.</i> REPORTER: Do you have any idea what they were looking for, who they were looking for? - I have no idea. I heard on the radio three Birmingham police officers have been shot and killed in Ensley, and my heart dropped. So I called, and then my dad’s best friend David Douda picked up the phone. He was in tears. <i>And I just knew.</i> <i>LOU LOU: They just shut the whole block down.</i> People in the project went crazy. They went to drinking and, “Fuck the police!” and everybody just went crazy, you know. They say they was in the projects shooting guns and everything ‘cause they were celebrating in so many words. - I don’t wanna see nobody die, but it was a lot of people happy ‘bout that. A-a large amount. <i>OFFICER: I mean, this is a tremendous community loss today.</i> We’ve lost three, uh, wonderful soldiers that have been protecting us as citizens <i>and given their lives.</i> <i>It—it is a tremendous tragedy.</i> - At one point, I-I remember feeling like, you know, my chest was about to burst. Just felt like I just wanted to break down and cry. But I couldn’t do that. Today, June 17th, at approximately 1:19 p.m., <i>officers from the west precinct</i> <i>arrived at 1619 18th street Ensley</i> to execute a misdemeanor warrant on a Black male by the name of Nathaniel Woods. <i>While they’re attempting to serve that warrant,</i> <i>shots were fired by another suspect.</i> <i>He is being interviewed at this time.</i> <i>I knew all three of those offices.</i> Three funerals and a memorial service. How am I gonna make it through those? - ♪ Amazing grace ♪ - To the family, we thank you for giving us Carlos for all those years. <i>Carlos was the oldest.</i> <i>He could have retired. Now he was gone.</i> - Let’s come to the Lord in prayer at this time. <i>ANNETTA: Harley Chisholm— they gave him the nickname of Robocop.</i> <i>And then officer Bennett, he was the youngest.</i> <i>He had a small child.</i> <i>OFFICER: Well, we are family that when one hurts all hurts,</i> <i>and that’s kind of the way we have to look at it,</i> that we all pull together and we all cry together. - Daddy, when I was a little girl standing on your hand, you said that I could do anything. That the world would be mine. And you said, “Look up. Don’t look down, and you’ll be just fine.” <i>I was a daddy’s girl.</i> Our whole life, that’s my memory is my dad. My dad took me to get my ears pierced. My dad taught me how to drive a car. It was just always my dad. <i>ANNETTA: On the day that the murders happened,</i> <i>two suspects were apprehended:</i> <i>Nathaniel Woods.</i> <i>Kerry Spencer was also charged with murder.</i> We were glad that they had been apprehended. They weren’t harmed. Everything was done by the book. It was just understood, you know, this is a high-profile case. It’s going to be scrutinized. You wanna make sure that everything is done properly, nothing to jeopardize it. - Um... Michael, you’re employed with Birmingham Police Department, West Precinct, on the day shift. Is that right? - Correct. - Okay. - Michael Collins is gonna do a walk-through of the police shooting which occurred on June 17th, a Thursday. Start with your day, where y’all went where you showed up here at about 9ish or something with Carlos. Tell us—tell us about that. - I heard Carlos get on the radio that he was at this location on the 99. <i>[moody percussive music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>And I pulled up.</i> Carlos came to me and said the guy up in the screen door had told him to get the fuck off his property. - Okay, for the people that don’t know me, my name is Kerry Marquise Spencer, otherwise known as Nook or Nookie. And I’m here to set the record straight about what happened on June 17th, 2004 in a neighborhood in Ensley in Birmingham, Alabama. <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>It was a dope house.</i> <i>We was selling dope, you know what I mean, shit.</i> We had a relationship with these cops. We were paying ‘em every week, you know what I’m saying, for almost, what, two or three years. <i>So let me just get to the day in question</i> <i>on June 17th about what happened.</i> <i>[moody music]</i> <i>Think the first time they came,</i> <i>they were beating on the windows,</i> <i>beating on the doors and all that shit, looking for Bubba.</i> <i>Bubba ‘n them said, “What now?”</i> ‘Cause Bubba was the drop man. He took they money, you know what I mean? And that’s who they wanted to see. - It came to a point where we just stopped paying them, you know what I mean? They got a little greedy, wanted more money and, you know... <i>[heavy chords]</i> <i>They came back a second time,</i> <i>you know what I’m saying, in the morning.</i> And, you know, we argued a little. We called them fuck boys and everything or pussies and all types of shit, you know. And they in turn called us niggers and all this type shit. - So basically, y’all had two guys yeah-yeahing back and forth with y’all. - Yes. - And at this time y’all had no idea who these guys were by name? - No, no, no. - Even by street name? - No. - Carlos said, “All right, what’s your name?” And Nate told him his fucking name, ‘cause Nate knew he had no warrants. He was clean, you know, what I’m saying? He was straight, you know what I mean, and the motherfuckers left. <i>I went to sleep, you know what I mean,</i> <i>like, shit, I popped me a Seroquel</i> <i>and had a Bud Light. Knocked the fuck out.</i> <i>MICHAEL: So I checked Nathaniel Woods.</i> and he had a misdemeanor warrant. <i>[punchy percussive music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> I believe Carlos was trying to get him to come out. Step outside, you got a warrant. You’re under arrest, okay? He said it three times. All of a sudden, Nathaniel decided to go in the house. I mean, he turned and... and when he did like he was gonna run, Harley grabbed the door. <i>KERRY: I wake up to some stumblin’ and bumbling and shit.</i> So I walk into the bedroom and look out the window. I see fucking cop car, and I’m like, “Aw shit.” <i>So as I’m coming out the bedroom,</i> <i>Nate come stumbling out the kitchen</i> <i>holding his face like he’s in pain.</i> <i>He had mace in his face or whatever.</i> Then out the corner of my eye, I see movement, you know what I mean? So when I looked that way, I see them motherfuckers is two cops tryin’ to turn their fucking guns on me. I start squeezing that goddamn trigger on that chopper before I even aimed at him, you know what I’m saying? I probably hit the floor a couple of times before I hit either of them, you know what I mean? But I ain’t stop shooting till both of them lay there, period, you know what I mean? <i>Then another motherfucker kicked the front door in.</i> <i>[tense music]</i> <i>I just know the room started lightin’ up.</i> I turn around, there’s a motherfucker right there with a gun aimed at Nate, so I bump Nate out the fucking way. And I hit him like three times, you know, what I’m saying? In the chest, whatever, torso area. <i>Nate took the fuck off, that nigga dip,</i> <i>you know, what I mean?</i> <i>Like, he want no parts of that shit,</i> you know what I mean, and I respect him for that, love him for it, you know, what I mean, like shit. <i>I go peep out the back door.</i> There’s a cop just standing over just chilling, you know what I mean, ain’t even on his radio, not shit. This motherfucker thought it was the police in the house shooting. You understand? <i>So when I pushed the screen door open with my foot</i> and I stepped out that bitch with that chopper in my hand, that motherfucker eyes got big as shit. you know what I mean, and I gave him a look. Look said, “Don’t make me do it.” - But you know, it wasn’t a thing. - It wasn’t a thing, no, I mean knew that, so... [indistinct] <i>[tense music]</i> <i>KERRY: So I go back through the house.</i> <i>I walk out the front door, looking around and shit.</i> <i>[tense music]</i> <i>The motherfucker on the ground,</i> <i>his hand jump and touch my foot.</i> The rifle was already pointed at the ground. I just slightly move that motherfucker over, I mean, it was like boom, you know, just I hit him in the face. <i>Tossed the rifle, and I took off running.</i> <i>[heavy music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> - Okay, you think Nathaniel was trying to get y’all to come into the apartment? - In my opinion, yes. He—he wanted us—he acted, he instigated, you know, the co—first conversation he gave us his name and, in my opinion, he wanted us to come into the apartment. <i>KERRY: Now, the state,</i> they said that Nate masterminded this whole thing, you know what I mean? Understand this. We’re one block down from the fucking precinct. <i>Who in the fuck in their right mind</i> <i>would mastermind some shit like that?</i> <i>These was no honorable-ass cops.</i> <i>That’s all I’m getting to, you know what I mean?</i> <i>They wanna make these folks look like heroes</i> <i>and all this and that.</i> They know the truth of the shit. They knew what was going on with these officers, but they didn’t want their shit to come out, and they’d make sure that it didn’t, all right? Y’all cool. All right, that’s it for this little video right here <i>[somber music]</i> - To deal with rumors was a distraction. It was an extra weight and pressure. And if someone was saying that someone had done something else, if you got evidence of that, bring it to me. <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>RESIDENT: You have some people in the Ensley neighborhood</i> <i>that love the police.</i> But they gonna tell you Curly and Robocop was a piece of shit. - I ain’t got nothing bad to say about no police. - Look man, white boy done pulled me over. I got [indistinct] in my car. I got dope. They take my dope...ha. And tell me to get the fuck on. What kind of police does that? <i>[uneasy music]</i> <i>DARRYL: Curly pulled up on me and one of my friends</i> and told me that he’d give me $500 to— to go door-to-door and buy drug at drug houses so he could bust ‘em. <i>I think this needs to be said.</i> Officer Bennett was a young dude. He was a good cop. He was courteous. <i>He cared about the neighborhood,</i> <i>and he got caught up</i> with Curly and Robo in that mess, and—and—and it hurt my heart to see that kid go. <i>LOU LOU: Curly never did nothing to me.</i> So I’m not gonna say nothing bad about the man. He was good to me. It’s a couple of times he coulda took me to jail. <i>And even if he had to take you to jail,</i> <i>he’ll pull over and let you get rid of everything on you.</i> - This pocketbook— I used to have a bag full of paraphernalia. He would let me take my paraphernalia, put them in the, uh, in the sewer somewhere, so I get out of jail and I go back and get ‘em. - He was nice to certain people, but everybody know Curly was a drug dealer, and if Curly took dope from you, he took it to his guys that he had selling it. - 26 years in police force. He was not a crooked cop. You would think if he was, it would have come out. It would have not taken until he was dead and can’t defend himself for it to come out that he’s a crooked cop, because he wasn’t. <i>[tense music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>REPORTER: 24-year-old Kerry Spencer appeared in court</i> <i>for Judge Tommy Nail to hear pre-trial motions.</i> - We filed a motion that say we were going to, uh... say it’s self-defense in this case. <i>REPORTER: Prosecutors once again</i> <i>showed gruesome pictures of the officers’ bodies.</i> <i>The court later heard from Spencer himself</i> <i>testifying in his own defense</i> <i>saying the shooting was self-defense.</i> - I don’t know, I have to depend on what my client tells me happened <i>about a possible pay-off</i> <i>to some police officers.</i> <i>REPORTER: Blalock said Spencer did not have specific intent</i> <i>to murder the officers,</i> <i>but that he did feel threatened.</i> - He says, “You know, they were hitting us up for money.” If Bubba wasn’t gonna be there, then they were gonna come in there and somebody’s gonna leave in a body bag type deal or something going on that shouldn’t have been going on. Bottom line. And I think the jurors picked up on it. <i>Yeah, they found him guilty</i> <i>but they didn’t give him the death sentence.</i> They recommended life without parole. <i>REPORTER: Kerry Spencer was found guilty</i> <i>and sentenced to life without parole,</i> <i>but that sentence was changed to death</i> <i>by judge Tommy Nail two weeks ago.</i> REPORTER: Was that kind of a surprise to you? - No, wasn’t a surprise to me because, you know, I told my client that regardless of what the jury does, you know, the judge has the option to over-turn— overrule the jury’s recommendation, because that’s all it is. It’s a recommendation. Personally, I think it’s too much pressure on an elected judge, period. LAWYER: The Spencer case came before ours. It was encouraging. It was encouraging, because if the jury recommended life without for Kerry, then one would certainly think that they would recommend it for Nate if they even found him guilty. <i>NAIL: The wave of these senseless deaths</i> <i>over the past year</i> <i>cannot be the wave of the future in this state.</i> <i>You gotta think about this,</i> <i>law enforcement is the fabric of our society</i> <i>and without law enforcement, what do we have?</i> <i>We have chaos.</i> <i>CYNTHIA: The theory of the defense and in the Spencer trial</i> <i>was that the police were actually</i> <i>doing something corrupt,</i> <i>that Kerry shot them</i> <i>‘cause he thought they were coming in to shoot him.</i> That wasn’t our defense because Nate hadn’t killed anyone. There was some question whether he was in complicity. We believe there were a number of factors that showed he wasn’t in complicity to set up a murder. Our defense was Nate didn’t kill anybody, and he didn’t. <i>NAIL: Just because this is not the man</i> <i>that pulled the trigger,</i> <i>it’s our position he was involved in this shooting.</i> So he’s as responsible for the injuries and the deaths as the person who pulled the trigger. <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>REPORTER: Jury selection continues. Nathaniel Woods’ attorneys</i> <i>are hoping for specific kinds of jurors.</i> - We’re looking for intelligent, thoughtful, and analytical-type jurors. There’s a lot of evidence in this case. There’s gonna be a lot of smoke and red herrings, and we want jurors that can see through that. <i>- My name is Curtis Crane.</i> <i>I live in Jefferson County, Alabama.</i> - Ooh, my. [laughs] <i>My name is Christina Bishop.</i> I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. <i>- My name is Chris McAlpine,</i> and I was one of the jurors on the Nathaniel Woods trial. - Well, I got a summons to be on jury duty. <i>At that time, I didn’t know what trials it was gonna be.</i> <i>You just show up,</i> <i>50, 60, 70 people in the room.</i> - It was like an auditorium full of people. - We had to fill out some questionnaires. Did we know any Birmingham police officer? Do we know anybody that was connected to this case at all? - How many of you have heard about this case? And we were all required to raise our hands. <i>[uneasy music]</i> <i>CHRISTINA: This is the courtroom, if I’m not mistaken,</i> <i>that they actually had the trial in,</i> where we are now. <i>CURTIS: Then they selected 14 jurors,</i> <i>12 jurors and 2 alternates.</i> Ten white jurors, and two Black jurors. CHRIS: There were two African-American ladies, and the rest of everyone was white. <i>CYNTHIA: We had a jury that was a vast majority of Caucasian people,</i> and I did feel that the racial makeup of the jury fell to people expressing their objection to the death penalty and therefore being removed from the jury. - I just felt like it should’ve been probably more Black men on the jury, then that would have kind of balanced it out. Then, to me, it would have been just, you know, a little better. - The prosecution asked for the jury to be sequestered. That motion was granted. This trial is expected to last about two weeks. Reporting from the Criminal Justice Center, Chris Osborne, ABC 3340. <i>[somber music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>CYNTHIA: From the opening statement,</i> <i>the prosecution claimed that Nate and Kerry</i> had already plotted to lure the officers into their house and shoot them, which made absolutely no sense. <i>REPORTER: Defense lawyers are hammering home</i> <i>that the three slain police officers</i> <i>weren’t lured in with the screen door tightly latched.</i> <i>CYNTHIA: He did not believe he had a warrant on him.</i> He locked that door because he knew they weren’t supposed to come in that house and he wasn’t inviting them in and he wasn’t stepping outside. <i>REPORTER: Birmingham police officer Michael Collins</i> <i>testified for a second day</i> <i>about attempting to serve Nathaniel Woods</i> <i>a warrant at that Ensley apartment.</i> - He set us up, drew us in, put us right where Kerry Spencer could come around the corner and shoot. - Spencer always corroborated that—that it was a spur-of-the-moment thing what he did. <i>I think Nate had been maced, and so I don’t know</i> how he could have be directing anybody anywhere. <i>CYNTHIA: The prosecution claiming that no one</i> <i>had sprayed Nate with mace.</i> That would have stuck except for the fact that in all those hundreds of photographs, there was a photograph of the mace canister by a door of the other side of the room and a photograph of the officer’s belt with the mace canister gun. <i>So later on when they said,</i> <i>“We collected the officer’s belt</i> <i>and that mace canister was in—in there,”</i> <i>we had proof that that was false.</i> That the evidence had been tampered with. <i>The jury needed to hear that over and over again.</i> <i>That everything wasn’t exactly the way the prosecution said.</i> It wasn’t an ambush where he led them to the house. He, in fact, was sprayed with mace and they tried to cover it up. I think that Mr. Collins might not be remembering things as they were then. He’s under a lot of stress. He’s getting counseling. From our point of view, our case looked pretty good. <i>REPORTER: But Alabama’s attorney general says</i> <i>Woods was an active and willing participant in the crime.</i> <i>The AG says Woods even wrote a letter to the widow</i> <i>of one of the officers, taunting her.</i> <i>RITA: There was a letter that was sent unfortunately</i> <i>to one of the deceased police officer’s wife.</i> <i>I think there was a lot of frustration on Nate’s part.</i> He’s being charged with a horrendous crime. He knows what’s coming down. He’s not really treated very nicely in the jail. So he’s frustrated. He’s young. Probably should have just kept his mouth shut. <i>NAIL: Nobody knows but God and Nathaniel Woods,</i> <i>what was in Nathaniel Woods’ head.</i> So we proceed with this just like we do any other case. <i>We present it to a jury and let them determine</i> <i>whether or not in their mind</i> <i>he was involved in this conspiracy.</i> - Prosecution, they had tons of evidence. <i>The defense was just that</i> <i>Mr. Woods didn’t pull the trigger.</i> That was pretty much his defense. - But at the same time, <i>when the prosecution would bring up</i> something that I would think would be questionable, the defense wouldn’t respond <i>or try to defend what the prosecution just presented</i> and that kind of wowed me. <i>CHRIS: The defense, not to say that they were bad at their job.</i> If you’re in a situation where you know you’re fighting a losing battle, even though you can do everything that you know that you can do and you do it right... but you know, no pun intended, but the evidence is stacked against you. <i>[moody music]</i> <i>CURTIS: One thing that stood out in my mind</i> <i>during the trial was Mr. Woods would get up,</i> and they would escort him out before we got up. And he would stare at us, all the jury members, like seemed like he was trying to intimidate us or something. That’s the feeling I got anyway. <i>CHRISTINA: He looked like he knew he was defeated.</i> <i>You could just tell by his demeanor.</i> He didn’t ever act out, anything like that. That’s how he looked. <i>His demeanor was just as serious as the crime</i> <i>that he was being charged with.</i> Yeah. <i>CHRIS: When it came time for sentencing,</i> <i>when he was finally asked,</i> <i>is there anything you’d like to say to the family</i> <i>or to the jury to help in the decision</i> <i>that they’re about to make?</i> That man looked every one of us in the eye and finally goes, “If they want my blood for their blood, so be it.” That’s all he said. And I remember sitting there going, “You’ve got to be kidding me. “That’s the best you could come up with knowing what we’re fixing to decide?” You obviously didn’t care. Why should I? But I do. <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>CHRIS: So there’s 12 jurors and then there’s 2 alternates.</i> <i>So there’s 14 of us sitting in the jury box.</i> Somebody knows who the two alternates are—we do not. - You don’t know who the alternate is until the end. - So right before it becomes necessary to go back and deliberate on the guilty verdict, the two alternates are excused <i>CHRISTINA: The last day,</i> I found out that I was the alternate juror. <i>Once I found out I was an alternate juror,</i> I went back to the hotel. I didn’t even stay. <i>[heavy music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> I was shocked. I was relieved. But, you know, disappointed at the same time. Just a-a well of emotions. <i>CURTIS: I asked the question about Mr. Woods</i> <i>not shooting the gun they said</i> the law says if you’re involved in a crime and you don’t actually do the crime, if you’re part of the conspiracy, you’re as guilty as a person doing the actual murders. And when that was brought up as being the law, that’s when I made up my mind how I was gonna vote. <i>CHRIS: I know at least two, if not three times,</i> <i>that we had to come back out here,</i> <i>have everybody here and him</i> read that law to us again and kind of explain it before we finally made our final decision. <i>[uneasy music]</i> <i>Arguments are closed.</i> We need to find him guilty or innocent. - Oh, on the guilty or not guilty, I can’t think of anyone that was not thinking the same thing. <i>CYNTHIA: It’s kind of a rule of thumb you go by it,</i> <i>which is that when the jury comes out,</i> <i>if they’ll look at you or some of ‘em look you in the eye,</i> <i>that generally means you’ve got a good verdict.</i> <i>But if they won’t look at you, then it’s not a good verdict.</i> And not one of them— not one of them would look us in the eye. - Full house. Everybody said, “Okay, he was guilty.” <i>We had no other choice.</i> Right, wrong or indifferent, we had no other choice. <i>REPORTER: As the guilty verdict was read, Woods showed disgust.</i> - Although we had a different opinion, we respect what the jury has done and the hard work they’ve put into it. Now we’ll wait and see what they say about sentencing, what they will recommend. - We had two options. Obviously, one was life without parole and the other was the death senten—death penalty, or the death sentence. <i>We had eight that were definitely the death penalty.</i> We had two that were not willing to discuss at all coming off of the death penalty. <i>Nobody wanted a hung jury by no means.</i> <i>We had to come out of the jury room three times</i> <i>to get the judge to go over it with us again,</i> the way the law reads, the way it’s supposed to be interpreted. You just don’t know the struggle. I, it—it really is a struggle because... <i>somebody’s life is literally in your hands.</i> <i>[dramatic music]</i> <i>CYNTHIA: The jury recommended the death penalty, which...</i> was... I’m still flabbergasted by. - It was 10 to 2 for the death sentence. And that’s—that’s hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. You wonder, you ask yourself what gives you the right to do this? You’re just a man, just a person. What gives you the right to tell somebody else they gotta die? That’s the hardest thing I ever done, and I’ll never do it again. <i>[somber music]</i> <i>- It will never bring Rob back,</i> and it won’t change what’s happened, but, um, I think justice was served. - The truth will eventually come out. These crooked [bleep] police officers, that’s why they were [bleep] killed in the first place, ‘cause they trying to do [bleep] drug [bleep] that they meant to be doing in the first place. That’s how they end up getting [bleep] killed. <i>REPORTER: Nathaniel Woods’ sister was escorted</i> <i>from the courthouse following the verdict.</i> - It’s a blow for fairness to defendants, which I know that there’s a lot of prejudice and people think that we should not be fair to Nathaniel Woods, but it speaks to what we are, that we are requiring fairness for the defendant as well as for the victims. <i>RITA: I mean, just think about it.</i> I mean, the jury recommends life <i>for the person that shoots everybody,</i> and the jury recommends death for the person that doesn’t shoot anybody. That just is unbelievable to me. Uh... The—the travesty of it. <i>PAMELA: A lot of people were already biased.</i> I don’t think that they care what happened. The fact that three officers— three white officers was dead, they were just wanting to put somebody away for the crime. - Their minds was already made up. - Yeah. HEAVENLY: Already. - I really did go in there with a open mind to listen and to see because of the seriousness of the case. But I don’t feel everybody probably did have a open mind about it already. <i>CYNTHIA: If that African-American juror</i> <i>that was an alternate had been put on the jury</i> <i>and made that vote 9 to 3 instead of 10 to 2,</i> <i>there wouldn’t have been a recommendation of death.</i> <i>It could have been huge.</i> It’s the difference between life and death. - Nobody wins in this. Nobody won, you know. Them being convicted, yes, that’s a vindication. Yes, that’s justice, but I mean, nobody wins. I mean, three fellow officers died. <i>RITA: We can learn a lot from all of this.</i> You know, I haven’t done any more capital cases since then. I took a big break after that. It was just— it was just so dramatic. <i>CYNTHIA: Conviction of officers’ killer upheld.</i> <i>Motion would block self-defense.</i> <i>I don’t know what I could have done to change the way</i> that verdict came out because in my opinion, that should not have been the verdict. <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>SPEAKER: Alabama has the highest rate</i> <i>of death sentencing in the country.</i> And that’s largely a function of these legal components like not requiring unanimity in the imposition of the death penalty. And in Mr. Wood’s case, only 10 of the 12 jurors believed he should be subjected to the death penalty. <i>He would not have been sentenced to death</i> <i>in most states that even have the death penalty</i> because they would have required unanimity. Mr. Woods didn’t kill anybody, didn’t shoot anybody. And the state didn’t even contend that he did. <i>[moody music]</i> <i>We have laws that say,</i> <i>even if you didn’t commit the crime,</i> <i>but you’re some kind of accomplice,</i> <i>we can subject you to the same punishment</i> <i>as the person who committed the crime.</i> And there’s a long history of this as well. During the time of mob violence, they wouldn’t just lynch the person who was accused of doing something criminal, they would lynch family members, they would lynch neighbors. <i>And that mindset is still evident in our law,</i> <i>and that law of accomplice liability</i> <i>was what got Mr. Woods on death row.</i> These rules are not designed to ensure reliability and fairness. <i>They’re designed to appeal to the politics of fear and anger</i> <i>to satisfy this instinct</i> <i>that some people have to see someone be executed</i> <i>when there’s been a terrible crime.</i> INMATE: Ready? [murmurs] <i>[moody music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>[moody music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>[reading] There are no virgins within these walls</i> <i>‘cause life has fucked us all.</i> - Wipers. Living my life has been relatively easy in a lot of ways, and I have the obligation to like take on those problems that other people like don’t have control over. <i>I got an email from Project Hope</i> <i>to abolish the death penalty.</i> And they announced the upcoming execution of a man named Nathaniel Woods. I forwarded the email to my mom, who’d had a budding interest in capital punishment, and honestly, I didn’t think much more of it than that. <i>[anticipatory music]</i> ELAENA: Before 1:30 in the morning... <i>LAUREN: My mom calls me a few days later,</i> <i>and she’s gone down to the courthouse.</i> <i>She told me that</i> <i>she started combing through the transcripts</i> <i>and gone through the court summaries</i> and that there were some things that were off. <i>Think for both of us it was a curiosity</i> of what actually happened. - There’s a table. - No, no, no. You’re not—wait. No, that’s wrong. Here’s the door. There can’t be a table right at the door. - There was. - Oh, it’s like right here? - Mm-hmm. <i>LAUREN: And so we were just looking for</i> <i>any red flags that we saw.</i> <i>ELAENA: </i>The reason I say it is— - Got it. I think I came across Bubba’s affidavit <i>detailing the bribery scheme that was going on</i> <i>between him and Curly and Robocop</i> and that—that was like one of the—our big aha moments. We can look at the transcripts. <i>I contacted his legal team to see if there was any way</i> <i>that I could provide support</i> <i>and I was asked to help prepare the clemency petition</i> <i>that would be sent to the governor.</i> - I ask you to please judge the evidence in this case... <i>LAUREN: We were asking for more time for a new legal team</i> <i>to join the case</i> <i>and to put forward the information</i> <i>that should have been presented from the beginning.</i> ELAENA: Acted in complicity. - All we knew is that this case had gone horribly wrong, and Nathaniel was not guilty of these murders. And he was about to be executed. - Is Alabama about to execute an innocent man? <i>LAUREN: We need time to look further into the evidence.</i> <i>REPORTER: Woods’ current defense team says his conviction</i> <i>was just one of many legal wrongs.</i> - It truly is a case where no one peeled back the curtain to see what was going on. <i>PAMELA: When I got connected with Lauren,</i> that’s when we went to the media. And then that’s when it made a really big impact. - Activists are calling for an 11th-hour intervention. - 12 jurors, and 10 of them decided on one thing. Two of them were undecided, so they can’t even make up their mind. What makes this judge become God then? <i>- This case has gotten national attention.</i> ACTIVIST: Nate Woods. Nate Woods. You’ll look at the petition? - I promise I’ll look. - He gets to be executed Thursday. - I’ll look at it. - Thank you so much. PAMELA: This is my brother. - It’s her brother. <i>REPORTER: Among those who called for his execution</i> <i>to be stopped was...</i> - Martin Luther king III. - Kim Kardashian West. - And OJ Simpson. - It’s just wrong. - It seems irresponsible and unconscionable to kill someone who could be innocent. - We’re asking for clemency. <i>REPORTER: Woods’ family and a slew of others</i> <i>are speaking out in support of Woods.</i> - We’re asking for time. - Why can’t Nathaniel Woods get a break? - I had just as much to do with the shooting as Nate Woods. - I had as much to do with the shooting as Nathaniel Woods. - I had as much to do with the shooting as Nathaniel Woods did. - Are you gonna execute me too? - Are you gonna execute me too? <i>REPORTER: The group has a protest planned today in Montgomery</i> <i>outside the Capitol building.</i> <i>They plan to deliver protest letters</i> <i>to Governor Ivey’s office.</i> - Sigh the letter, I just signed the letter myself. <i>LAUREN: It was important to alert the governor to what was happening</i> because if the governor feels a certain way then maybe, maybe the attorney general will—will intervene. <i>REPORTER: Woods’ execution by lethal injection</i> <i>is scheduled for this Thursday at Holman Prison in Atmore.</i> [chanting call to prayer] ♪ ♪ [men chanting] - We seek refuge in Allah from the evil of our souls. And this is Holman Prison. They call this hell on earth. Hell on earth. See this—this death row area, you know. And the—and the execution is on that side and everything else, you know. I was super impressed by his tranquility. We prayed together and, you know, and that’s all we— keep—keep God on your mind, you know. He basically told me, you know, how—how the case got jammed up. I told him, look, there’s nothing I can do about all that. Only thing I can do for you right now is to prepare you for death. Prepare you for meeting your Lord. <i>[somber music]</i> <i>REPORTER: In less than two hours, Nathaniel Woods</i> <i>is scheduled to be executed at Holman Prison, in Atmore.</i> <i>It will be the state’s first execution of 2020.</i> <i>LAUREN: On the day of, we decided</i> <i>that I was going to stay in Birmingham,</i> <i>managing communications that needed to happen.</i> <i>I think around 5:30 we got word that the governor</i> <i>would consider granting clemency</i> <i>if we could get one of the victim’s family members</i> <i>to ask for a halt to the execution.</i> <i>I had gotten an email from Kimberley Chisholm,</i> Robocop, Haley Chisholm’s sister. <i>She had said in this email,</i> something very simple like I want Nathaniel to know that I have forgiven him for any role that he had in my brother’s death. <i>And I said, can you please call me.</i> I think this is the one. <i>- Hi, honey, this is Kim.</i> <i>- Hi, hi. Thank you for calling me.</i> I haven’t listened to this recording at all since. <i>- He didn’t kill—he didn’t kill my brother.</i> <i>He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.</i> <i>- Could you tell them that?</i> <i>- Yes, I will.</i> <i>- But they didn’t give us a number to call.</i> <i>[line rings]</i> <i>RECORDING: You’ve reached Alabama Department of Corrections.</i> <i>Please listen to the following options. LAUREN: Oh, Jesus.</i> I mean, we were, at this point 20 minutes away from the scheduled execution. <i>- Thank you for calling the office</i> <i>of the Alabama Attorney General, Steve Marshall.</i> - Everyone was at home having dinner with their kids. <i>- You’ve reached Governor Ivey’s office,</i> <i>we are either in a meeting or—</i> <i>- Okay, are you still there? - Yes, I am.</i> <i>- Okay.</i> And so I’m thinking as I’m talking to her, if I don’t get through fast enough, then they’re going to go through with it and it’s gonna be because I couldn’t get to someone. <i>- What?! LAUREN: Oh, goddamn it.</i> <i>LAUREN: Oh, no, no, no. - Stop!</i> <i>LAUREN: No, no, no, I think they’re doing it, they’re doing it.</i> <i>[sobs] No, no, no, no.</i> <i>- We still— LAUREN: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.</i> <i>They’re killing him right now. - No, they’re not!</i> <i>- What does it say? - I think they delayed it.</i> <i>I don’t think they’re going through with it.</i> <i>- Oh, thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus.</i> <i>Have mercy.</i> <i>REPORTER: Breaking news.</i> The US Supreme Court has issued a stay for the execution of convicted cop killer Nathaniel Woods. - Breaking news that the Supreme Court grants a temporary stay in Nathaniel Woods’— [laughing, cheering] <i>REPORTER: Right now, a temporary stay on that execution.</i> US justices have until midnight tonight to decide. - I’m shaking. I’m so excited. I don’t know what to do, you know, we got a whole another generation—generation at this moment. They get to know their granddaddy. It feel so good. - It feels so good! <i>LAUREN: The Supreme court granted a two-hour stay.</i> Many people were celebrating. I was getting tons of text messages and it was this feeling of victory. <i>ANDREA: When I checked and found out it was delayed,</i> well, I got a little nervous. I’m like, “Y’all, can’t just let him go. He was the whole entire reason.” PAMELA: I was happy about it, but I wasn’t gonna really get it happy about it until after midnight. ‘cause I didn’t wanna get my hopes up. <i>LAUREN: I mean, it was just a waiting game at that point</i> <i>to see whether the governor would intervene.</i> - Hi, everyone, and thanks for watching tonight. I’m Peter Albrecht. - I’m Cherish Lombard. It’s great to have you. We do have breaking news from Atmore tonight where the execution of a convicted cop killer is back on again. <i>REPORTER: After a number of last-minute appeals,</i> <i>Alabama’s Governor denied a request for clemency.</i> - A temporary stay has been lifted and Nathaniel Woods has been executed by lethal injection. - The room was very quiet. Woods seemed to be calm, choosing not to say anything before the lethal drug was administered. <i>- Relatives of officers Harley Chisholm, Carlos Owen,</i> <i>and Charles Bennett watched Woods die.</i> - Authorities say that he had no last words. - Well, I’m gonna tell you what he told me. I was sitting there at the table with him, and he told me these words. He said, “Dad, I love you.” He said, “But when y’all walk out this gate today,” he said, “I’m gonna walk out with y’all, but y’all is not gonna know it.” And that was one of the hurting feeling that I ever felt in my life. And he said, “I’m gonna be all right.” And he said, “I’m gonna to be a free man when I come out this gate.” And them the last words that he told me. <i>[quiet music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>HEAVENLY: When they told him, “Hey, it’s time to go,”</i> <i>you know,</i> just him walking away to that door, him looking back at us, You know, just what was he thinking? <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>HEAVENLY: Trauma.</i> I’m just... I’m just still angry, and I don’t know how to express my anger, but I’m angry. - Governor Ivey, I’m the sister of Nathaniel Woods. - Please leave, we’re still doing a— - You killed my brother. Governor Ivey, you killed my brother They wanted to execute him. They wanted revenge and they used my brother for that. He’s not a killer. - No justice. ALL: No peace. - No justice. ALL: No peace. - What’s his name? ALL: Nate Woods. - What’s his name? ALL: Nate Woods. - A little bit louder. ALL: Nate Woods. - A little bit louder. ALL: Nate Woods. <i>SPEAKER: The story begins</i> <i>with who’s going to make a decision</i> <i>about whether someone is guilty or not guilty.</i> - Justice for who? ALL: Nate Woods. - Justice for who? ALL: Nate Woods - The decision-makers in our legal system are—are largely all white. The judges are white. The prosecutors are white. And frequently, the jury members are white. - No justice. ALL: No peace. - No justice. ALL: No peace. <i>BRYAN: About 87% of the people who’ve been executed</i> <i>in the state of Alabama were Black.</i> - What’s his name? All: Nate Woods. - What’s his name? ALL: Nate Woods. - Birmingham, Alabama, where this crime took place, is a majority-Black city. And yet Nathaniel Woods was tried by a jury that was over 80% white. That is not an accident. That is a consequence of prosecutors using discretion to exclude people of color. ACTIVIST: We will not let his death go in vain. ACTIVIST: It will not! - This is a modern-day—this is modern-day lynching. ACTIVIST: Yeah. [activist shouting indistinctly] <i>BRYAN: The problems in Alabama are particularly glaring and acute</i> <i>but they’re not unique to Alabama.</i> <i>This is a problem all across America.</i> These disparities are quite dramatic today and they will only get worse if there isn’t some response, some reckoning in how we talk about issues like the death penalty and—and—and criminal justice in America. <i>[moody music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> - I think that what he got he deserved. It was justice. I really do feel that way. Sure do you miss you. Wish you were here. PAMELA: If you knew Quel, you know, he was silly, he liked to play jokes and everybody knows that he had a big heart. And I want everybody to remember Quel for who he was as a person and not just how he was killed. <i>ANDREA: I don’t forgive.</i> I do not forgive either one of those people but I have to quit hating because it was making me a horrible person. <i>I’m still empty.</i> I’m still empty just like I was that day, and it’s never gonna go away. PAMELA: A lot of times we think of what more could we have done and we don’t know. All we do know at the end of the day is that they wanted him gone, and they killed him. <i>[heavy music]</i> <i>♪ ♪</i> <i>[music intensifies]</i> <i>[music stops]</i>

Times Documentaries

Watch1:08:32

The New York Times Presents: 'To Live and Die in Alabama'

January 27, 2022

The New York Times examines the case of Nathaniel Woods, who was sentenced to death for his role in the murders of three Birmingham police officers fatally shot by someone else. The documentary is available here for New York Times subscribers in the U.S. or you can stream it on Hulu.

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