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NATHANIEL WOODS EXECUTION: A 16-year Alabama battle over the value of life (opinion)

Anthony Cook

Anthony Cook is executive editor of Consolidated Publishing.

About a month ago, I got a call from a gentleman who lives in Texas. He said he was the cousin of Nathaniel Woods. He was referred to me by a mutual friend and asked for my insight on how Alabama could consider executing a man who admittedly was present when someone was killed, but never himself pulled the trigger.

Initially, I didn’t remember the name — Nathaniel Woods. But when he explained that the crime involved killing three police officers in Birmingham, it came rushing back to me, albeit in pieces.

Nathaniel Woods was in the same Birmingham apartment with Kerry Spencer in 2004 when Spencer shot and killed three police officers who were there to execute a warrant.

I was working at The Birmingham News at the time and remember the horrifying details. Ultimately, even though Woods didn’t shoot anyone, both men were charged and convicted of capital murder, which carries a death penalty sentence or life in prison without parole.

I explained to the cousin that by law, when a crime results in the loss of life, anyone involved in that crime can be held responsible for that death. If someone is killed in a robbery, for example, the complicity law holds the getaway driver as responsible for the homicide as the trigger man.

After that phone call, I received several correspondences from advocacy groups fighting to save Woods’ life, to have his case, or at least supposed new evidence, presented to a judge before executing him. 

The final push came this week, with advocates and family pleading with Gov. Kay Ivey to stay Woods’ execution. Those pleas fell on deaf ears. On Thursday night, the state of Alabama — you and I — executed Nathaniel Woods by lethal injection.

I watched the live stream as family members of Officers Carlos Owen, Harley A. Chisholm III, and Charles R. Bennett thanked the governor for providing justice and asked the community not to forget those fallen officers. It was gut-wrenching. They still hurt. They deserve justice.

Make no mistake about it. Nathaniel Woods was not an innocent man. Most accounts say that, while he didn’t pull the trigger that day 16 years ago, Woods was responsible for luring the officers into the apartment where they were gunned down — one of them at point-blank range.

Spencer, the man who pulled the trigger, absolutely deserves the death penalty. But it’s baffling that he’s still alive while Woods, the man who didn’t pull the trigger, has already been executed.

With questions about how poorly he was defended in court lingering over this case, would it have hurt for Gov. Ivey to stay the execution while those questions were resolved? Shouldn’t we as a state be completely satisfied that justice is being served when we collectively take someone’s life? Would spending the rest of his life in prison have been a miscarriage of justice? If so, then why do capital murder convictions even carry the option of life without parole?

Last year when Ivey signed a law that makes performing an abortion a felony in Alabama, she was quoted as attributing it to, “Alabamians' deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”

Every life? Really?

Last week, Pickens County Memorial Center became the 13th rural hospital to shut down in Alabama since 2012, further putting at risk the lives of the most remote and poverty-stricken residents among us. Why? Because Gov. Ivey refuses to expand Medicaid, which would bring in much-needed federal dollars. The argument is that Alabama can’t afford the matching dollars it would cost, but in the next breath she’ll tell you how great Alabama’s economy is doing.

The real reason is that Medicaid expansion is a component of Obamacare, and no self-respecting conservative can be caught doing anything favorable involving Obama, even if it would provide a lifeline to the residents of your own state.

Oh, but every life is precious …

Reports show that former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. is up for parole next year. He’s one of the men accused of bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four little black girls.

The chances of Blanton getting out on parole next year are slim to none and rightfully so. But at least he’s still alive.

I guess every life is precious … until it’s not.

Anthony Cook is the executive editor of Consolidated Publishing. 

Executive Editor Anthony Cook: 256-235-3540. On Twitter @AnthonyCook_DH.