The Execution of Nathaniel Woods

What You Need to Know, and Why You Need to Hear It From a Veteran Criminal Defense Lawyer John Helms

Leading up to Alabama’s execution of Nathanial Woods for his role in the killing of three police officers, there has been a lot of misinformation about the facts of his case and the law that applied to his conduct.  In particular, there has been extensive media coverage of his friend, Kerry Spencer, telling anyone who will listen (which includes a few minor celebrity activists), that Spencer shot and killed all of the police officers and that Woods is “100 percent innocent.”  If Spencer is the one who shot and killed the police officers, then Woods is being executed for a crime he didn’t commit, right?  Wrong. 

Under Alabama law, and the law of pretty much every state, a person who intentionally helps another person commit a crime is just as guilty as the person who committed it.  At trial, the State did not claim that Woods shot any of the officers.  Instead, the State argued that the evidence showed that Woods and Spencer intended to kill police officers and that Woods lured officers into a drug house where he knew Spencer was waiting with a loaded military-style weapon to kill them.  There was evidence, for example, that Woods told Spencer where another officer was so that Spencer could then shoot the officer.  

So, it does not matter whether Woods pulled the trigger or not.  If Woods intentionally lured the officers into a trap/ambush so that Spencer could kill them, then he was guilty of the crime of accessory to murder under Alabama law, which can be punishable by death.  That was the prosecution’s theory at trial.  The prosecution did not claim that Woods was the shooter.  

Some articles and blogs that I have seen completely fail to explain this.  They appear more interested in promoting outrage to get readership than in helping people to understand what this case is really about.

It is telling that none of the appeals leading up to the execution actually argue about the fact that Woods was not the shooter.  Instead, they cover more arcane issues, like whether Woods’ original appeals lawyer was constitutionally ineffective, whether Woods should be able to challenge certain procedural waivers, and whether the proposed method of execution is cruel and unusual.  

Some people might say:  You are a criminal defense lawyer.  Why are you trying to explain the prosecution’s side?  The answer is that one essential function of criminal defense lawyers, which is often overlooked, is to give clients the best possible advice about their chances of success at trial.  As a criminal defense lawyer, I have to give my clients an honest assessment of their defense, because it may be in their best interest to plead guilty and get a shorter sentence.  If my client wants to go to trial I will be an advocate for them in the courtroom, but when we are meeting in private I have to give them the best advice even if it may not be what they want to hear. 

Let’s use the Woods case as an example.  Let’s say that the prosecutors had offered a plea bargain of twenty years in prison in return for a guilty plea.  Now, let’s suppose that I had told Mr. Woods that he had nothing to worry about and that he should not plead guilty because he was not the shooter so he could not possibly be found guilty.  Mr. Woods might have felt great hearing that he was going to be found not guilty, but my advice would have been completely wrong.  If he followed my advice he would have been convicted and sentenced to death but if I had not given him bad advice he would have been able to get only twenty years for a guilty plea.

I hope that this article helps people to understand the Woods case a little better.  As an experienced criminal defense lawyer, I believe everyone benefits when we have a better understanding of high-profile cases like this.  I also know that my clients benefit when they get the best possible advice about their case, from someone who can be both objective in private and a fighter in the courtroom.  

Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer John Helms