Prosecutors use ‘felony murder’ to jail people who didn’t kill anyone

By Brian Williams
January 17, 2022

When three Caucasian men were convicted in the Brunswick, Georgia, killing of African American jogger Ahmaud Arbery last November, two were found guilty, not of killing him but of “felony murder.” That is, they didn’t kill Arbery but were present and committed other crimes where he was shot to death.

The Militant objected, pointing out that “many capitalist politicians and prosecutors have used ‘felony murder’ charges in many states across the country to obtain harsh and long sentences.”

One clear example of this is the execution of Nathaniel Woods. Woods was executed March 5, 2020, in Alabama for the killing of three Birmingham police officers. But he didn’t kill anyone. He was unarmed when cops were gunned down as they went into a house with a warrant to arrest Woods, an African American, on a misdemeanor.

This case exposes the gruesome workings of the capitalist “justice” system, and of the spurious charges of “capital” or “felony murder,” and is the subject of a new documentary by the New York Times, “To Live and Die in Alabama.”

“Nathaniel Woods is 100% innocent,” death-row inmate Kerry Spencer wrote in a letter in support of Woods. “I know this to be a fact because I’m the man that shot and killed all three of the officers.”

Alabama is one of 26 states where an accomplice can be sentenced to death. Prosecutors didn’t have to prove Woods killed anyone to get him convicted for capital murder. Instead, they claimed he “lured” cops to their deaths. Eleven of the 1,458 executions in the U.S. between 1985 and 2018 involved cases in which the defendant neither arranged nor committed murder, according to the Death Penalty Information Center

In addition, Alabama is the only state that does not require jury unanimity in recommending executions. In Woods’ case, the jury voted 10 to 2 for putting him to death. Only two of the dozen jurors hearing the case in the Black-majority city of Birmingham were African American. Both voted against.

Woods flees as cops are killed

The cops were killed on June 17, 2004, at a one-story apartment in the Ensley neighborhood of the city that Spencer and Woods used for a drug-dealing operation. At 10:30 a.m., two cops, Carlos Owen and Harley Chisholm, arrived at the apartment to check on stolen cars, they said. Woods and Spencer engaged in a heated argument with them.

The cops left and ran Woods’ name through their database, discovering he was charged with a misdemeanor four months earlier in a domestic dispute.

Four cops then pulled up by the apartment. Owen went to the back insisting that there was a warrant for Woods’ arrest and he must come outside. Woods refused. The cops rushed into the apartment. Spencer opened fire, killing Owen, Chisholm and Charles Bennett. Woods escaped and was sitting on a porch across from the apartment as the shootings took place. “I was so shocked,” Woods later told the police. “And I was hollering, telling him to stop, stop, stop.”

Spencer was tried first. He testified he shot in self-defense when cops pulled guns on him and the shooting was not planned, as prosecutors alleged. The jurors recommended Spencer get life without parole but the judge overruled them and sentenced him to death.

A month later, in October 2005, Woods stood trial on capital murder charges. Marquita McClure, Woods’ girlfriend, had told detectives he and Spencer talked about killing cops before the shooting. But later she told a pretrial hearing she “made that up.” During an appeal of the conviction, Woods’ attorney said cops had threatened to charge McClure with parole violations if she didn’t testify against him.

For the next 15 years Woods was incarcerated on death row. During that time he wrote poetry and converted to Islam. About a month before his scheduled execution a fight demanding clemency was organized by Lauren Faraino, a corporate lawyer, and her mother, Elaena Starr, whose husband is the son of football Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr. Others demanded a halt to the execution, including Martin Luther King III, Kim Kardashian and rapper T.I.

About 22 minutes before the scheduled execution, Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay, good for six hours until the death warrant expired. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey then rejected the appeal for clemency. A few minutes later the Supreme Court lifted the stay. With poisonous chemicals administered through his veins, Woods was declared dead at 9:01 p.m. He was 43.