In Alabama, a Death Sentence for a Man Who Never Pulled the Trigger
"A New York Times documentary 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.
‘To Live and Die in Alabama’
Producer/Director Matt Kay
Producer/Reporter Abby Ellin
Producers Cydney Tucker and Lora Moftah
Reporter Dan Barry
Watch our new documentary on Friday, Dec. 3, at 10 p.m. on FX or stream it on Hulu.
“I won’t shoot no police officer,” Nathaniel Woods told investigators hours after three Birmingham police officers were killed in a violent shootout at an Alabama drug house. “Ain’t do nothing like that,” he said.
Indeed, Woods didn’t kill anyone on June 17, 2004, and he was unarmed when the officers — Carlos Owen, 58; Harley Chisholm III, 40; and Robert Bennett, 33 — were fatally shot while trying to arrest Woods on an outstanding warrant.
“I know this to be a fact because I’m the man that shot and killed all three of the officers,” the gunman, Kerry Spencer, said in a letter in support of Woods. He added: “Nathaniel Woods doesn’t even deserve to be incarcerated, let alone executed.”
Still, Woods, a Black man, was convicted of capital murder for his role in the deaths of the three white officers.
Alabama is one of 21 states where accomplices are considered just as complicit as the person who pulled the trigger, and prosecutors had successfully argued that Woods lured the officers into the house, where his partner Spencer gunned them down.
In Birmingham, in which a majority of residents are Black, a nearly all-white jury took less than three hours to recommend, on a 10-to-2 vote, that Alabama also execute Woods. The state has more people on death-row per capita than any other.
A new documentary by The New York Times examines the case of Woods, who never touched the gun used in the fatal shootings, but was punished all the same.
In the film, premiering Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern time on FX and Hulu, Woods and Spencer explained how they both wound up on death row, awaiting their fates. Woods’s family, his lawyers and even the sister of one of the officers shot by Spencer tried desperately to win a reprieve for Woods, up to the final minutes before his execution.
Andrea Elders, the daughter of Carlos Owens, one of the other slain police officers, shared the details of her devastating loss and said that she could never forgive Woods for his role in her father’s murder. Members of the jury described the difficult process of deciding whether or not to recommend the death penalty.
“Somebody’s life is literally in your hands,” one juror said.
Supervising Producer Liz Day
Senior Producer Rachel Abrams
Directors of Photography Matt Kay, Victor Tadashi Suarez
Video Editor Pierre Takal
“The New York Times Presents” is a series of documentaries representing the unparalleled journalism and insight of The New York Times, bringing viewers close to the essential stories of our time."