ATLANTA – Nathaniel Woods never pulled the trigger, but prosecutors said he was just as guilty as the man who did. He had been a mastermind, prosecutors said, luring police officers in Birmingham, Ala., into a house where three of them were killed.
A judge sentenced him to death, but as his execution neared on Thursday, Woods had a growing number of supporters arguing that there was no evidence showing he had plotted to ambush the officers.
Instead, his supporters claimed that Woods had been sent to death row based on a case rife with flaws as well as a practice in capital punishment cases that had been abandoned by every state but Alabama, which still allows a defendant to be condemned without a unanimous jury decision.
Woods, 44, was convicted in 2005, and at his sentencing, prosecutors portrayed him as someone who hated the police. The officers' widows said they believed that Woods ought to die, and all but two of the jurors agreed.
His execution had been scheduled for 6 p.m. local time Thursday, but an intense effort by death penalty activists, civil rights groups and Woods's family succeeded in delaying it. For days, they had rallied for the courts or Gov. Kay Ivey to intervene, and just minutes before he was set to die, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay delaying his execution.
The court lifted the stay later Thursday night, and Woods was executed by lethal injection just after 9 p.m. at the state prison in Atmore. He had no last words.
Woods' case has highlighted Alabama's persistence in carrying out the death penalty, even as capital punishment has increasingly fallen out of favor across the country. Advocates have also used his case, with the lack of a unanimous verdict, to bring attention to a practice neglected by other states as courts ruled that it was unconstitutional.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said allowing death sentences without a unanimous decision "creates a heightened risk that an innocent person will be sentenced to death."
Woods' supporters have noted that there was no dispute that Woods was not the shooter, and that the actual gunman had also argued Woods's innocence. They have also described inept representation, with one lawyer abandoning him during his appeals process.
Woods turned down a plea deal of 20 to 25 years in prison, supporters said, because he had been misled into believing he could not be sentenced to death when he was not the gunman.
"At literally every step of the way, Nate's counsel has let him down," said Lauren Faraino, a lawyer in Birmingham who has been an ardent supporter of Woods.
But in a letter to the governor arguing against a reprieve, Alabama's attorney general, Steve Marshall, said Woods was "not an innocent bystander" and his case had been handled properly.
After the issue has come before the courts, most states have abolished the ability to impose a death sentence based on only a majority of votes. In Alabama, where the State Supreme Court has upheld its constitutionality, at least 10 jurors have to vote in favor of the death penalty for the judge to impose it.