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Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

Chip Brownlee

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Back in February 2017, an inmate was eating his evening meal when other inmates sexually assaulted him inside his dormitory at Fountain Correction Facility, a medium-security Alabama men’s prison opened in 1955 near Atmore.

The prison is designed for 831 inmates, but it currently holds more than 1,200 prisoners at 150 percent its intended capacity, according to an Alabama Department of Correction report released in December.

The victim in this instance was forced to perform oral sex and raped by two other inmates, who held him down while they assaulted him. He was transported to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’s Center for further treatment, and the Department of Corrections was able to substantiate the incident.

Despite the evidence, no ADOC staff reported the assault.

“Either ADOC staff responsible for monitoring the dormitory did not observe the incident, or they observed it but did not report it,” a report from the U.S. Department of Justice released Wednesday found.

This incident is just one of several inside of Alabama’s highly overcrowded and understaffed men’s prisons highlighted in the Department of Justice’s report, which found that conditions in the state’s 13 men’s correctional facilities are so bad that they amount to a potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The report, nearly 60 pages long, found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama’s Department of Correction regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates.

“Our experts’ on site interviews of captains and lieutenants revealed that many ADOC staff appear to accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse in ADOC as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners,” the report, which highlights the “severe” and potentially unconstitutional conditions in Alabama prisons, reads.

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The “theme” of sexual abuse as a consequence of debt to other prisoners is so common, according to the report, that some incident logs specifically highlight a prisoner’s debt history.

Other examples, some among the dozens of violent assaults cataloged in the DOJ report, found that inmates were also sexually abused as retaliation for having previously reported abuse.

The assaults, the report found, showed a “flagrant disregard” for the inmates’ rights to safe conditions.

The DOJ’s wide-ranging investigation found not only that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

Another inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility was strangled to death in 2016, and when officers finally found his body, he had been lying down face-first in his bed for so long that his face was “flattened.”

At some point, the assailants urinated on the victim and carved “1636” into his ribcage — indicating the deceased victim was a gang member who committed the “cardinal sin” of being a traitor or snitch.

Officials had prior warning, and less than two weeks before his death, he had been assaulted over debt and placed in segregation for protection, the report found. He was released only hours before he was killed.

“The Constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to be housed in safe conditions and not be subjected to violence and sexual abuse,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result. The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The DOJ’s investigation — pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act — started in October 2016 in the final months of the Obama administration.

For more than two years, DOJ investigators — under the leadership of former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — interviewed hundreds of inmates, correctional staff and ADOC officials, combed through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and made site visits to four male prisons.

“This massive undertaking alleges constitutional troubles in the Alabama Department of Corrections, which are serious, systemic and in need of fundamental and comprehensive change,” U.S. Attorney Jay Town stated.

Inmates in Alabama’s aged and dilapidated prisons endure some of the highest rates of homicide, suicide and rape in the country, the report found.

“An extraordinary amount of time and effort was expended to investigate this matter,” said U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, Sr. “Although the results of this investigation are disturbing, I look at this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the problems are real and need to be addressed immediately. We are committed to working with State officials to ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

DOJ officials have notified Alabama prison administrators that it could sue in less than two months if ADOC officials do not “satisfactorily address” the concerns raised in the report, including major overcrowding, rampant contraband and severe understaffing.

The violence is made worse by “serious deficiencies” in staffing. Some facilities have fewer than a fifth of their assigned correctional positions filled.

“That being said, I have great confidence in the State of Alabama’s resolve to correct the prison system’s problems,” Town said. “The commitment by Gov. Ivey, Commissioner Dunn and so many others in the State’s leadership to affirmatively address these inherited issues offers great promise of our development of a meaningful remedy.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the issues are the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of “significant reforms” by state officials. Since taking office, Ivey has pushed for a plan to build new prisons and hire additional correctional officers.

“Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution,” Ivey said in a statement.

The DOJ did acknowledge that remedies are already being sought for many of the issues listed in the report.

“We recognize ADOC has begun to make some positive changes in recent years,” the report found.

But some of the most severe issues could take years to fix, and lawmakers have shown an unwillingness to invest in new prisons or a substantial transformation of Alabama’s prison system. The governor’s administration can only do so much without funding from the state Legislature.

The ADOC plan to build new prisons, the governor’s office said, would allow for enhanced security through updated structures and the implementation of current technology resources. It would also help to improve medical and mental health services by consolidating more than a dozen men’s prisons into just three so-called “mega prisons.”

“The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Moore. “We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment. The task is daunting, but one we must embrace now without reservation. I am confident that Governor Ivey and the Legislative leadership in the State of Alabama understand the nature of this inherited problem and that they are committed to sustainable solutions.”

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who has pushed the Legislature to invest more in new prisons and more personnel, said ADOC voluntarily assisted the DOJ during its investigation.

“Our primary objective is to ensure each facility provides a humane, secure and safe environment for inmates, and that reforms already in place and proposed bring about positive, tangible changes throughout the prison system,” Dunn said.

The Legislature has taken some steps, providing $86 million in additional appropriations in 2018 and 2019 for hiring additional correctional and health services staff.

Ivey has asked for $31 million to help the department hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel in an effort to bolster correctional officer retention levels.

But the report said the state was “deliberately indifferent” to the issues prisoners face while incarcerated, and it has “failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence.”

The Legislature has also taken aim in recent years at Alabama’s high incarceration rates, engaging in efforts to reform the state’s sentencing laws. The sentencing guideline changes have reduced overcrowding to a degree, but the report found that they were not retroactive and had a “minimal effect” on the issues raised in the investigation.

“There is no excuse for Gov. Ivey and Commissioner Dunn’s knowing disregard of and failure to address the horrors cataloged in DOJ’s letter,” said SPLC attorney Ebony Howard. “As DOJ’s letter makes clear, and as advocates have said for years, Alabama cannot simply build its way out of this crisis. While acknowledging the few modest remedial steps ADOC has taken, the letter clearly demands a complete overhaul of Alabama’s prison system, starting today.”

Ivey warned of the “horrendous conditions” and impending federal involvement in her State of the State speech earlier this year. During her first year in office, Ivey considered calling a special session over the state’s deteriorating prison system.

The report comes after several lawsuits have challenged the conditions in the state’s prisons. U.S. Federal Judge Myron Thompson found conditions to be “horrendously inadequate” in his ruling on a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over the prison system’s mental health care, which largely focused on the state’s high suicide rate among the imprisoned.

Federal court rules Alabama treatment of prisoners in isolation unconstitutional

There have been at least 15 suicides in the past 15 months — more than double the national average.

More lawsuits are still pending.

“The Department of Justice is not exaggerating when its findings letter characterizes the current staffing levels at the Alabama Department of Corrections as ‘at a crisis level,’ ‘egregious’ and ‘dangerous,'” said SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Maria Morris.

“Alabama’s leadership has repeatedly failed to responsibly address inadequate staffing levels,” she said. “This is contributing to horrific incidents of violence and suicide among prisoners that are completely preventable but for the incompetence of the ADOC leadership.”

The DOJ’s investigators interviewed more than 270 prisoners, made four site visits, sent two DOJ investigators to interview prisoners in seven Alabama prisons and provided prisoners access a toll-free number with direct access to DOJ personnel.

The report found that inadequate training, failure to classify and supervise inmates and high contraband levels — including drugs and weapons — contributed to the violence and sexual abuse so prevalent in the prison system.

The problems could extend to state staff members, too. Another investigation by the DOJ is still ongoing concerning excessive force and sexual abuse on the part of the correctional staff.

Overall, the department conducted more than 500 interviews with prisoners and family members by phone, reviewed more than 400 letters from ADOC prisoners and received hundreds of emails from prisoners and family members to a special email address established specifically for this investigation.

They requested and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and data from 2015 to 2018. The investigation provides just a “window” into the broken state penal system.

“Alabama must stop wasting time and money on litigation and start investing in solutions,” Morris said.

The state has 49 days to “satisfactorily address” the issues, or new Attorney General William Barr may begin a lawsuit to correct the problems.

“We hope, however, to resolve this matter through a more cooperative approach and look forward to working with you to address the alleged violations of law we have identified,” DOJ officials said in a letter to Ivey.

 

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House committee passes bill cutting out appeals court in death penalty cases

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill preventing prisoners convicted to death from appealing their case to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.

House Bill 275 was sponsored by State Representative Connie Rowe, R-Jasper.

“This bill was brought to me by the Lt Governor,” Will Ainsworth (R).

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, as amended “Removes the Court of Criminal Appeals from the process of appealing a death penalty case,” Chairman Hill said.

State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the sponsor of the Senate version of this bill/

“You also have your federal appeals. You still have your rule 32 appeals,” Ward said.

State Representative Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, said, “I look at it in the point of getting it right. If they are in jail you can always get them out of jail if a mistake is made. You always want to be right with death. If you remove the court of criminal appeals you increase the likelihood of not getting it right. I am not for skipping this stage in matters where a life is at stake.”

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“Looking at the records this one step appears to be redundant,” Ward said.

State Representative Alan Farley, R-McCalla, said, “We have people on death row for twenty, twenty five years. We are talking about removing one step in the criminal appeals. How many appeals are we talking about?”

Ward answered, “I can make that same trek multiple times on different procedural issues. There are several fail safes in there. There even was a stay of execution issued in the last execution.”

Farley sai, “we are not talking about one or two times. It is more like 18 times.”

State Representative Mike Ball, R-Madison, said, “There is a redundancy in the system. This cuts out a step in the procedure. The original bill, cutting out the Supreme Court, did not make any sense. All this does is remove a step from the process that does not add anything to the process.”

Rowe said that this would take two years out of the process. In 1988 a Walker country woman killed in her house. He father and mother died waiting on justice. Now her sister has passed. She has some nieces and nephews left. How long do we go without justice?

“Historically when someone is exonerated in this state it is at the federal court system,” Rowe said. “Lets get them there faster.”

Rep. David Faulker, R-Mountain Brook, said, “This eliminates the delay.”

The amended bill was given a favorable report and now can advance for consideration by the full Alabama House of Representatives.

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Nathanial Woods executed as accomplice in 2004 murders of three police officers

Eddie Burkhalter

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A Birmingham man convicted of being an accomplice in the murders of three Birmingham police officers was executed Thursday evening. 

Nathaniel Woods, 43, was executed after appeals and national media attention failed to deter Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to intervene. Woods was convicted of being an accomplice in the murders, despite the shooter’s statements that Woods was not responsible for the deaths and that there was no plan to kill them. 

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay in the hours before Woods was set to be executed at 6 p.m. Thursday, but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas just before 8 p.m. lifted the stay. Woods was pronounced dead at 9:01 p.m. 

“After thorough and careful consideration of the facts surrounding the case, the initial jury’s decision, the many legal challenges and reviews, I concluded that the state of Alabama should carry out Mr. Woods’ lawfully imposed sentence this evening,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement after the execution. 

A jury in 2005 convicted Woods of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three Birmingham police officers – Charles Bennett, Carlos Owen and Harley Chisholm III – but the man who shot them and wounded another, Kerry Spencer, admitted to the crimes and is also serving on Holman’s death row.  

On the day the officers entered the Ensley apartment shared by Woods and Spencer, Woods surrendered and had no weapon, but the commotion startled Spencer awake in another room, and he came out firing his semi-automatic rifle, according to court records. 

During Spencer’s trial, he testified that those officers had harassed them over two visits earlier that day and that when they arrived for the third time he was asleep in a bedroom. Spencer testified that he shot the officers as a “knee-jerk reaction” when he saw one officer with his gun unholstered inside the apartment and that Woods was innocent in the deaths. 

In the days before his execution, prominent people began urging Gov. Ivey to intervene, and national media outlets covered the case. 

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Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, wrote to Ivey asking her to stop Woods’s execution. Kim Karshadian West and O.J. Simpson both tweeted support for Woods and asked for intervention in his execution. 

U.S. Senator Doug Jones on Thursday also expressed concern over the pending execution. 

“Given the questions and mitigating issues involved in this case — and the finality of a death sentence — a delay is warranted to provide time for a thorough review of all the facts and circumstances to truly ensure that justice is done,” Jones said in a statement. 

Kimberly Chisholm Simmons, the sister of officer Harley Chisholm, killed by Spencer, in a statement before Woods’s death, asked Ivey to reconsider her decision not to intervene.  

I do not think that Nathaniel is guilty of murder. I urge Governor Ivey to reconsider her decision not to intervene. There is no harm in allowing more time for the courts to investigate. I want the new evidence to be brought forward and evaluated by new attorneys,” Simmons wrote. 

“Please do not move forward with the hasty decision to execute Nathaniel. My conscience will not let me live with this if he dies. I beg you to have mercy on him,” Simmons wrote.

 

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Opinion | The “rule of law” has some exceptions

Josh Moon

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The State of Alabama murdered a man on Thursday night. 

Murder is what you call it when someone intentionally causes the death of another human for an unjustifiable reason. 

That fits with what Alabama did to Nathaniel Woods. 

Woods didn’t kill anyone. Everyone associated with the case agreed on that. And the amount of mental gymnastics you have to perform in order to apply Alabama’s “accomplice law” to Woods’ involvement in the shooting deaths of three police officers is Cirque du Soleil worthy. 

But it didn’t matter to the State of Alabama. Or Attorney General Steve Marshall. Or Gov. Kay Ivey. Or to the U.S Supreme Court. 

Everyone was cool with sticking the needle in Woods’ arm because “the rule of law” must be followed. 

It’s weird how the importance of the “rule of law” never comes into play when discussing ineffective counsel or improper jury instructions or a judge who improperly allows the victims’ widows to recommend sentences to the jury — all of which, and more, happened in Woods’ case — but “rule of law” becomes the absolute most important thing when it’s time to carry out the execution in a flawed case. 

I mean, if the rule of law is actually that important to you, maybe start tidying up the processes that have repeatedly led to innocent men landing on Alabama’s death row, and some of them winding up dead. 

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If you need examples of this happening, let me point you to the movies made about those cases. All of them. 

If the rule of law matters to anyone, here’s what it did to Nathaniel Woods: it failed him in the biggest way. 

To understand how, you have to know the story of Woods’ arrest, so here’s the quick version. He was at a home allegedly known as a crack house, and Birmingham police were at the door to serve a warrant. These cops apparently knew Woods, and he apparently knew them. They argued, and Woods said he didn’t believe he had a warrant and refused to come out. 

So, the cops went in. According to court records from the prosecutors, Woods almost immediately surrendered and asked not to be maced. 

Not understanding what was happening, Woods’ alleged accomplice, Kerry Spencer, who was asleep in a back room when cops broke through the door to arrest Woods, picked up an assault rifle and came out firing. He killed three of the cops and injured a fourth. 

This is why Nathaniel Woods was murdered by Alabama on Thursday. 

For another man’s crimes. 

Oh, there was another explanation — one pushed by the prosecutors and by Marshall and Ivey the last two days — that makes so little sense it’s hard to believe grownups are repeating it. 

In order to charge Woods under Alabama’s accomplice law, which allows the state to hold people responsible for crimes they cause even if they’re not the person who commits the act, the state had to show that Woods intentionally lured the officers into the home knowing they would be shot. 

To prove this, the state presented evidence that Woods and Spencer had argued with two of the officers earlier in the day, and that Woods had allegedly told one officer that if he would “take off that badge,” Woods would “(mess) him up.” There were allegedly other threats made back and forth. And then everyone went on their way. 

But according to the prosecutors — and wrap your head around this — Woods knew they would be back with a warrant later and set up a trap to murder them. 

That’s the only way the accomplice statute can be applied here. Woods had to know the shooting was going to occur and he had to cause it to happen, which means he had to anticipate the police would come back looking for him and he had to arrange for Spencer to shoot them (or at least know that Spencer would shoot them). 

For the record, Spencer finds that just as silly as you. He has been consistent in his testimony that Woods had no idea that he was going to shoot the officers and that Woods played no role in the shooting. 

Didn’t matter. Woods was still arrested and charged, and that was the first failure. 

He received a lawyer who had no experience with capital murder cases and advised his client that a plea deal offered by the state for 20-25 years — Marshall inexplicably denied in a letter on Wednesday that a deal was offered, despite this plea deal being mentioned numerous times in court filings — shouldn’t be taken because the state had to prove that he participated in the crime. This was bad advice. 

So, Woods was failed again. 

A number of appeals deadlines were missed — failed again — and Woods’ ever-changing attorneys — failed again — attempted to file late appeals for rehearings. The criminal appeals court and Alabama Supreme Court refused to hear those late appeals, which argued ineffective counsel, among other things — and he was failed again. 

And, of course, you know the failures that happened on Thursday night, when all of the people who could have stopped this travesty instead hid behind a “rule of law” excuse to do nothing. To keep up the appearances of tough-on-crime politicians. To tout their “law and order” record. 

Which is odd, because you’d think stopping improper executions would be part of law and order.

 

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Man set to be executed Thursday for murders he did not commit

Jessa Reid Bolling

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An Alabama man convicted in the 2004 shooting deaths of three police officers he did not kill is set to be executed this afternoon. 

Nathaniel Woods, 44, was convicted in 2005 of capital murder in the shooting deaths of three Birmingham police officers Carlos Owen, Harley A. Chisholm III and Charles R. Bennett. Woods was also convicted of attempted murder in the shooting of officer Michael Collins. 

Woods is set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. today at Holman Correctional Facility. 

While Woods was not the one who shot the officers, prosecutors claimed that Woods lured police to an ambush at the apartment in Ensley where the shooting took place. The officers were attempting to serve a misdemeanor warrant on Woods when another man inside the apartment, Kerry Spencer, opened fire.

Spencer was also convicted in the case and is currently on death row. 

Yesterday, Spencer spoke via phone with CNN correspondent Martin Savage, saying he takes full responsibility for shooting the officers and that the shooting was a spur of the moment decision and there was no premeditated plan between him and Woods to kill anyone.  

“I’m the only one who shot anybody that day,” Spencer said. “He (Woods) didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody… I didn’t know I was going to do this s***, so how would Nate know?”

Woods’ attorneys released a handwritten letter from Spencer, in which he wrote Woods doesn’t deserve to be incarcerated, let alone executed. 

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“Nathaniel Woods is 100 percent innocent,” Spencer wrote. “I know this to be a fact because I’m the person that shot and killed all three of the officers.”

On the steps of the state Capitol, his family proclaimed his innocence in a plea to Governor Kay Ivey to grant him clemency to prevent his execution from being carried out. 

Nathaniel’s sister Pamela Woods, accompanied by their father Nathaniel Woods Sr., spoke to reporters outside the Capitol building, proclaiming her brother’s innocence and calling on Ivey to stop the execution.

“We really just want people to see that he really is innocent, that he didn’t have anything to do with the murders of those officers,” Pamela Woods said. “We do feel really bad for what happened that day. We don’t wish that on anyone, for their family to have to deal with that. It was very unfortunate that the shooter did what he did. But the main point is that Nathaniel had no parts in those actions of another man, Kerry Spencer.”

Yesterday afternoon, Molly Cole, an advocate for the Woods family, delivered letters to Ivey’s office asking the governor to stop his execution.

Cole was accompanied by two men who were freed from death row after their convictions were overturned, Garry Drinkard and Randal Padgett.

“I’m not here so much to get into Mr. Woods’ case, but I’m here to protest the state-sanctioned killing of human life,” Padgett said. “And I would like to quote Gov. Ivey’s own words back when she signed the abortion ban last year – the human life protection act. As she was signing it, she said ‘Alabamians have a deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.’ Well, I’m here to say that Mr. Woods’ life is precious. And I want her to stand up to her words and protect that life.”

“With the trial messed up the way it was, with the ineffective assistance of counsel, he should get some type of hearing, he should get a commutation at the least, in my opinion,” Drinkard said.

According to a website dedicated to Woods’ case called SaveNate.com, over 31,000 letters have been sent to Ivey’s office calling for her to grant a reprieve for Woods.

Advocates for Woods claim there is no evidence that there was any plan or scheme to kill the police officers and that inadequate legal representation during the trial led him to be wrongfully convicted.

Martin Luther King, III, son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., sent Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey a letter on Tuesday pleading for her to stop Woods’ execution.

“55 years ago, my father, Martin Luther King, Jr., lead a march from Selma, Alabama, where he and fellow civil rights activists were killed and beaten. Under your watch, Alabama is about to produce yet another tragic injustice,” King wrote. “It is about time we learn from our past, and be on the right side of history. 

“Killing this African American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice.

“Are you willing to allow a potentially innocent man to be executed?”

Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a statement yesterday on the Woods’ case, calling efforts to stop the execution “a last-minute movement” to save a “cop-killer” from his “just punishment.”

“The message of that movement is encapsulated by the headline of a press release sent out today, which declared: ‘Surrendered and Innocent Man Set to Die,’” Marshall said in the statement. “That headline contains two falsehoods and one truth. The falsehoods are the descriptors ‘surrendered’ and ‘innocent’: neither apply whatsoever to Nathaniel Woods, whose actions directly caused the deaths of three policemen and injury to another. The truth is ‘set to die’: 

“Nathaniel Woods was correctly found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers, and that sentence is set to be carried out tomorrow; that is, justice is set to be carried out tomorrow. The only injustice in the case of Nathaniel Woods is that which was inflicted on those four policemen that terrible day in 2004.”  

Ivey’s office told CNN yesterday that she will have no comment until a decision is made.

 

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