Execution date set for man convicted in 2004 murders of 3 Alabama police officers

Execution date set for man convicted in 2004 murders of 3 Alabama police officers
Nathaniel Woods, 44, is scheduled to die by lethal injection March 5, 2020, for the July 17, 2004, killings of Birmingham, Ala. police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett, who were gunned down by Woods' accomplice, Kerry Spencer, as they served Woods with a misdemeanor arrest warrant. (Alabama Department of Corrections)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An execution date has been set for one of two men convicted of capital murder in the 2004 shooting deaths of three Alabama police officers.

Nathaniel Lauell Woods, 44, is scheduled to die by lethal injection March 5 for the July 17, 2004, killings of Birmingham police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, 40, Carlos Winston “Curly” Owen, 58, and Charles Robert Bennett, 33, AL.com reported Thursday. The execution will take place at Holman prison, where Woods is on death row.

Accomplice Kerry Spencer, the actual gunman in the officers’ killings, is also awaiting his day in the death chamber at Holman, prison records show. According to court records, each man was convicted of four counts of capital murder -- one count for each of the officers and a fourth count for killing the officers in the course of another crime.

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They were also convicted of attempted murder for the shooting of a fourth officer, Michael Collins, who survived his wounds.

Birmingham, Ala., police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, from left, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down July 17, 2004, as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant in the Ensley community of the city.
Birmingham, Ala., police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, from left, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down July 17, 2004, as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant in the Ensley community of the city. (Birmingham Police Department)

Spencer and Woods were drug dealers who worked out of an apartment building in the Ensley community of Birmingham. Court records show that Chisholm, Owen, Bennett and Collins went to the apartment to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant on Woods for assault. The apartment, where they’d had prior contact with Woods, was just blocks from the west precinct of the Birmingham Police Department.

Owen and Collins went to the rear door of the apartment, while Chisholm and Bennett approached the front door.

“Nathaniel Woods came to the rear door with the screen door still in place between the officers and Woods,” court documents state. “Officer Owen informed Woods that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Woods responded with, ‘(Expletive) you. I don’t have no warrant.’”

At that point, Chisholm went around to the back door and, through the screen door, showed Woods a National Crime Information Center report that showed the warrant out of nearby Fairfield, along with a photo of Woods, the documents say.

Woods claimed the photo was not him and walked back into the recesses of the apartment. Chisholm opened the screen door and went inside, followed by Owen and Collins.

According to a 2014 interview with AL.com, Collins recalled that Chisholm got Woods down on the floor in order to handcuff him. Woods said, “I give up. I give up. Just don’t spray me with that Mace.”

As they attempted to take Woods into custody, Bennett radioed: “They are coming out the front,” according to both Collins and the court records.

Collins turned to the back door because the other officers and Woods were blocking his ability to go through the apartment to the front.

Street View images from December 2016, top, and October 2011, bottom, show the front and rear of the Birmingham, Ala., apartment building where city police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down July 17, 2004, as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant.
Street View images from December 2016, top, and October 2011, bottom, show the front and rear of the Birmingham, Ala., apartment building where city police officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down July 17, 2004, as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant. (Google)

“Officer Collins turned and was leaving through the back screen door of the apartment to assist Officer Bennett at the front when he heard gunfire from inside the apartment and felt something hit him on his right side,” the court documents state. “He stood outside the apartment for a few seconds, and put out a radio broadcast, ‘Shots fired. Double aught. Officer down.’”

Collins ran for cover behind a patrol car.

“I can’t say it as fast as I thought it, but I was like ‘Hey dummy, you’re standing in the open and somebody’s shooting at you,’” Collins told AL.com.

He told the news site that he kept radioing for help, but his radio kept giving him a busy signal.

“I’ll never forget that sound,” Collins said. “I called them (the other officers) on the radio but they didn’t answer. I knew then. I didn’t think there was much hope.”

From behind the patrol car, he saw a man standing just outside the back door, firing an SKS rifle at him, court documents say. Collins did not know Spencer, but later identified him as the man shooting the rifle.

“That was the first time I saw him. I knew it wasn’t Nathaniel, and I was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’” Collins told AL.com.

When backup officers arrived, Collins moved toward the apartment, but a fellow officer stopped him from going inside.

“It was a good thing,” Collins said. “That would be images I would have seen forever.”

Police officers search for evidence following a shooting that killed three police officers June 17, 2004, in Birmingham, Ala. Officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant in the Ensley community of the city.
Police officers search for evidence following a shooting that killed three police officers June 17, 2004, in Birmingham, Ala. Officers Harley Alfred Chisholm III, Carlos Winston Owen and Charles Robert Bennett were gunned down as they attempted to serve a misdemeanor arrest warrant in the Ensley community of the city. (AP Photo/ Haraz Ghanbari)

Each of the slain officers had been shot multiple times, court records show. Owen and Chisholm fell in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, where they had been trying to handcuff Woods, and Bennett was gunned down at the front door.

“Responding officers found an SKS assault rifle in the grass outside, a handgun in the bathroom and two long guns in a bedroom,” documents obtained by AL.com say. “The officers’ bulletproof vests had been pierced, typical of damage sustained by high-powered rifle fire.”

Despite the fact that Woods never fired upon the officers, prosecutors offered ample evidence that he appeared a willing participant in the carnage.

“The State established that Woods and Spencer had engaged in a hostile, profanity-laced argument with Officers Owen and Collins on the morning of the shootings, and that Woods threatened Officer Owen by stating: ‘Take off that badge and I will (expletive) you up,’” court records state.

Two female acquaintances of the men testified that, after Owen and Collins left to confirm the outstanding warrant for Woods’ arrest, Woods said he would kill the cops. A man who was there with them testified that Spencer said he would “light ‘em up,” and Woods concurred.

One of the women tried to get Woods to leave the apartment with her, but he said he wanted to stay with Spencer in case the officers returned.

“Officer Collins testified that when the officers returned to the apartment to arrest Woods, a man who had been outside said that he wanted no part of what was to take place,” court documents say. “When the officers told Woods that they had a warrant for his arrest and attempted to take him into custody, Woods cursed them and refused to come outside. He told the officers, ‘If you come in here, we’ll (expletive) you up.’”

After the shooting, Woods and Spencer fled the apartment and ran to a neighbor’s house for shelter. Witnesses who saw Woods there described him as calm, even as he said, “They (expletive) with the wrong (expletive). We shot their (expletive).”

To Spencer, Woods said, “You came through for me,” witnesses testified.

“When Woods was located, he was sitting with other men on the porch of (a neighbor’s) house nearby, apparently ‘very relaxed,’” the court documents obtained by AL.com state. “He gave his full name and was found to have two .22 caliber bullets in his pocket. Kerry Spencer was eventually pulled out of (the neighbor’s) attic.”

After the men were arrested, Owen’s service weapon was found hidden behind a heater near where Woods was sitting when officers arrived, court records show. Spencer gave conflicting statements as to who took the gun before fleeing.

AL.com reported in 2014, around the 10th anniversary of the Birmingham Police Department’s most deadly day, that Spencer testified at trial that he had bought the SKS rifle the day before the shooting. He admitted that he and Woods sold an average of $3,000 worth of drugs from the apartment each day.

The gunman testified that he took an antipsychotic medication, along with a beer, the morning of the shooting to help him sleep, AL.com said. He had the SKS with him as he napped.

He awoke to find Chisholm in the house with a gun in his hand and “automatically opened fire,” Spencer testified.

“It was a split-second decision,” he claimed, according to the news site. “It wasn’t like I had time to say, ‘Oh, you fixing to shoot me. No. It was, he pulled his gun up and I already had the weapon in my hand so I opened fire.’”

Collins, who suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg, told AL.com that it was upon his treatment and release from the emergency room that it hit him how close to death he had come. He credited one of his slain colleagues with his survival.

“I don’t know, and I can never prove it, but I’m not 100% sure that Carlos didn’t push me or give me a shove out the door,” Collins said.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Owen, a 26-year veteran, was survived by his wife, five children and several grandchildren.

Chisholm, a former U.S. Marine who had served the department for six years, was survived by his wife, mother and five siblings. Bennett, a three-year veteran, left behind a wife and 4-year-old daughter.

His daughter, Caroline, was awarded a scholarship in 2018 by the Birmingham Police Department through the Children of Slain Police Officers Trust Fund, AL.com reported. She planned to go to medical school.

Woods’ execution date comes after 15 years of appeals on the state and federal level. Most recently, in October, he was one of six Alabama death row inmates for whom the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear federal appeals.

A second cop killer, Mario Woodward, was also denied an appeal by the high court. Woodward was convicted of the Sept. 28, 2006, fatal shooting of Montgomery police Officer Keith Houts during a traffic stop. Houts, 30, was shot in the face and died two days later at Jackson Hospital.

Woodward, who fled the state, was later captured in McDonough, Georgia, by U.S. marshals.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the court’s decision in October to let the men’s convictions stand.

“The U.S. Supreme Court this week acted in its role as a last resort of justice, rightfully letting stand the convictions and sentences for these vile crimes,” Marshall said in a statement.