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Pleas for clemency mount ahead of execution set for Thursday

Eddie Burkhalter

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At 6 p.m. today Nathaniel Woods is to be put to death at Holman prison for the shooting deaths of three police officers whom he did not shoot. 

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.  

Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, has asked Gov Kay Ivey to stop Woods’s execution. 

“I stand with hundreds of thousands of Americans across Alabama and the nation, pleading with you not to execute Nathaniel Woods,” Martin Luther King III wrote in a letter to to Ivey. 

“Killing this African American man, whose case appears to have been strongly mishandled by the courts, could produce an irreversible injustice,” King’s letter reads. “Are you willing to allow a potentially innocent man to be executed?”

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 a 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. 

Lauren Faraino, a New York City attorney originally from Vestavia Hills, who’s been researching the case released a report and a website that details Woods’ case. 

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Among Faraino’s findings in court records was that statements provided by the surviving officer, Michael Collins, changed during his many recorded statements and testimony during the two trials. 

Collins told the court during Woods’ trial that in one of the previous visits to the apartment that day Woods told the police that  “[i]f you come in here, we’ll f— you up.”  

Collins made no such claim, however, in two separate police statements or in Spencer’s trial, according to Fariano’s research. In all of those previous statements Collins only said that Woods had told them “f— the police.” 

“The fact that Officer Collins never mentioned these exact words before Nate’s trial in which complicity was the charge raises serious questions about why Officer Collins suddenly changed his statement,” Fariano’s report reads. 

“Officer Collins’s new-found testimony that Nate said “[i]f you come in here, we’ll f— you up” served as a cornerstone for the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision upholding Nate’s conviction,” the report reads. “Specifically, the Court cited this testimony in rejecting Nate’s challenge to the sufficiency of evidence supporting his conviction on the accomplice-liability theory.”

Woods’s attorneys since the trial appealed the verdict, arguing that neither Woods nor Spencer had planned to kill the officers, and that there was evidence that there was police corruption related to a bribery scheme and drug sales, but according to The Appeal, those attorney’s made mistakes during the appeals, and none of the evidence has been heard by state courts. 

Asked by The Appeal whether he and Woods planned the killings, Spencer said, “There was no plan to kill the police.”

A federal judge on Monday dismissed Woods’s petition to the court that claimed the state was targeting him for an early execution because he failed to change the method of his execution in time. 

Gov. Kay Ivey in 2018 gave those serving on death row the chance to opt to die by nitrogen hypoxia, a newly approved but untried method of execution, but they only had a 30-day period in June 2018 to do so. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement Wednesday that 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.”

Woods is set to die by injection of the state’s execution drug cocktail.

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Three more prison workers test positive for COVID-19, testing of inmates remains low

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two workers at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one employee at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday evening.

The latest confirmed cases among staff bring the total of COVID-19 cases among prison workers to 58. Twelve of those workers have since recovered, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release Thursday. 

ADOC is investigating to determine whether inmates or staff had “direct, prolonged exposure to these staff members,” according to the release. Anyone exposed to the infected staff members will be advised to contact their health care providers and self-quarantine for two weeks, according to the release. 

The latest case at Bullock prison makes 5 workers there who’ve tested positive for coronavirus, and the worker at Kilby prison also became the fifth employee at that facility with a confirmed case of the virus.

There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases in 18 of the state’s 27 facilities, with the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County with the most infected workers, with 12 confirmed cases among staff.

As of noon Thursday, there were no additional confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, according to ADOC. Of the 11 confirmed cases among inmates, two remain active, according to the department. 

The extent of the spread of the virus among inmates is less clear, however, due to a lack of testing. Just 155 inmates of approximately 22,000 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to the department. Test results for six inmates were still pending. 

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An ADOC spokeswoman was working to respond to APR’s questions sent Wednesday asking whether the department had plans to broaden testing among inmates to include asymptomatic people, but APR had not received responses as of Thursday evening. 

ADOC this week completed installation of infrared camera systems at major facilities that can detect if a person attempting to enter or exit the facility is running a temperature greater than 100 degrees, according to the release Thursday. 

“This added layer of screening increases accuracy of readings while reducing the frequency with which individuals must be in close proximity at points of entry/exit,” the release states.

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More confirmed COVID-19 cases among state inmates, prison staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more inmates in Alabama prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, while confirmed cases among prison staff continue to outpace cases among inmates. Four additional workers have also tested positive, bringing the total to 55. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Wednesday evening announced that two inmates who had been housed at the infirmary at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for the virus. Those men, who were being treated for preexisting medical conditions, have been taken to a local hospital for treatment of COVID-19, according to the release. 

The infirmary at Kilby prison has been placed on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates there are to be monitored for symptoms of coronavirus and have their temperatures checked twice daily, according to ADOC. 

Two more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff at the facility to nine. 

One employee at the Bullock Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19, according to the press release, becoming the third worker at the prison with a confirmed case. An inmate at the prison had also previously tested positive for coronavirus. 

One worker at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility, which cares for older and sick inmates at most risk from serious complications and death from coronavirus, has also tested positive for COVID-19. 

ADOC on May 6 announced that an inmate at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed tested positive for the virus. A worker at the facility told APR earlier this month that staff there was concerned that the virus may have entered the facility after a correctional officer was ordered to sit with an inmate from another facility at a hospital, where the man later tested positive for COVID-19 and died the following day. 

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That man, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 6, according to the ADOC, and died within 24 hours of receiving the test results.

Despite the inmate’s confirmed COVID-19 test results, the correctional officer was ordered to return to work at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility without self-quarantining or being tested for the virus, the worker told APR

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR that all correctional officers who had contact with the deceased inmate all received tests for COVID-19 and reported negative results. The worker says that’s untrue, and that the officer hasn’t been tested. 

ADOC does not test staff for COVID-19 but requests that those who test positive self-report to the department. ADOC has said that inmates are only tested if they’re exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and only at the recommendation of a physician. 

As of Wednesday, 11 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and just two cases remain active, according to ADOC. 

As of Tuesday, 152 of approximately 22,000 state inmates had been tested for the virus, according to the department. 

It was unclear Wednesday whether ADOC plans to begin testing inmates who may not be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

Attempts to reach an ADOC spokeswoman Wednesday evening weren’t immediately successful. 

Some state prison systems have begun testing all inmates, and the results of those tests have shown the virus had spread in many facilities among inmates who showed no symptoms. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections tested all 38,130 state prisoners over a 15-day span and found that 3,263 of them tested positive, according to MLive

“The vast majority of the prisoners we found who tested positive had no symptoms and were making it more challenging to control the spread of this illness.” Heidi Washington, Michigan Department of Corrections director, said in a written statement, according to MLive.

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Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers reaches 51

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for coronavirus ticked up to 51 on Tuesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said just a single inmate has an active case of the virus. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Tuesday said three more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed cases among staff in that facility to seven. 

There were also two additional confirmed cases among workers at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, ADOC said in the press release, bringing the total of infected staff there to eight. 

One worker at the Kilby Correctional Facility, one at the Bullock Correctional Facility and another at the Ventress Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19.

Kilby prison has had four confirmed cases among staff, Bullock prison two and at Ventress prison there have been 11 workers to self-report positive test results. 

While the number of confirmed cases among staff have continued to rise in recent weeks, cases among inmates have not.

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Of the nine inmates in seven state facilities who’ve tested positive, just one had an active case as of Tuesday, according to ADOC. 

Of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, 143 had been tested for coronavirus as of May 22, the last day ADOC has updated testing numbers. 

ADOC’s announcement Tuesday of more cases among staff comes after Alabama saw its largest single-day increase on COVID-19 cases on Monday when 646 new cases were confirmed. 

ADOC halted visitation and volunteer entries at state facilities on March 19 to help prevent outbreaks in the state’s dangerously overcrowded facilities, but the department is working on a plan to resume “some facility operations thoughtfully, including visitation and volunteer entry, but has not yet established a definitive timeline,” according to the release. 

“Once established, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised of our anticipated plans and timeline to resume these activities safely in a manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus,” the statement reads. “A primary goal and concern of the ADOC is protecting the safety, security, and well-being of our inmates, staff, and the public during these unprecedented times. We continue to monitor COVID-19’s evolving impact closely on our correctional system, the state, and the country while we assess and analyze additional data in order to make informed and strategic operational decisions.”

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Alabama prisons releasing some inmates early amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Updated at 12 p.m. to include responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has automated the process of releasing early some inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses and who are nearing the end of their sentences, according to a department document obtained by APR

ADOC’s decision to automate the process by which inmates are mandatorily released early comes after 40 prison workers have tested positive for the virus as of Thursday. 

Advocates have for months asked that the state begin releasing inmates as the COVID-19 outbreak continued to spread, threatening the lives of those living and working inside Alabama’s overcrowded prisons. 

In a response to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said that the announcement in the letter is in no way related to COVID-19, and is simply the automation of early release dates for inmates, which was before done by hand-calculation and made possible by a state law passed in 2015.

Confirmed cases among inmates in Alabama prisons have remained remarkably low — just nine of approximately 22,000 have tested positive for the virus — but so has testing among inmates. Just 135 inmates, or about 0.6 percent of the inmate population, have been tested, according to ADOC. 

Steve Watson, associate commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections Plans and Programs, in a letter to staff and inmates on Wednesday describes the “mandatory release Automation” program that the letter states went into effect Tuesday. 

According to the letter, inmates convicted of sex offenses against a child under 12, an inmate serving a life sentence or those serving a sentence pursuant to Alabama code 15-18-8, which is the Alabama Split Sentence Act and includes offenses considered by state law as violent crimes, aren’t eligible for early release.

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Only those convicted of offenses committed on or after Jan. 30, 2016, may be released, according to the letter. 

Those released early are to be placed on supervised probation by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and remain under probation until the end of their sentences, according to the document. 

“To ensure intent of the statute is carried out in the interest of public safety, no inmate will be released until ABPP has communicated to Central Records Division that the home plan/supervision is approved, and that victim notification has been made consistent with the Mandatory Release statute,” Watson said in the letter. 

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in a message to APR on Friday said that the bureau will work with ADOC to “facilitate the transition of mandatorily released inmates to ensure maximum public safety.”

“The automation of the mandatory release process by ADOC is a positive development overall,” Abbott said.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR on Friday that by releasing inmates shortly before the end of their sentences and by providing supervision after release, studies show they’re less likely to re-offend. Ward also said that the state Legislature is going to have to provide the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles with the resources and parole officers needed to provide that supervision, however.

“They still have money left over that we appropriated in 2016, 2017 and 2018 that they haven’t used yet,” Ward said of the bureau. “They have money there. It’s just a slow process hiring these folks too.”

Ward said Alabama law allows early release of inmates in only a couple instances, one of which is the early release under the 2015 statute, and the other is by way of medical furloughs.

“I don’t think it’s been used very much, mainly because it’s such a stringent statute,” Ward said of medical furlough releases.

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR Friday said that the latest action is “not a new directive to release inmates, nor is it in any way related to COVID-19 or recommendations from the DOJ.”

“This memo simply informs ADOC staff that an existing time-computation process used to determine mandatory release dates (an output of SB67), which previously have been calculated by hand, has now been automated. The ADOC has been working to automate this formerly manual and time-consuming process for some time now,” Rose said.

Ward said it seems clear that ADOC is aware of the need to release some inmates amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“They know what the circumstances are like inside there, whether it warrants it or not,” Ward said. “And I think they have expressed concern about COVID-19 and the impact it could have with overcrowding.”

Ward said the decision to release some inmates could only help with the state’s discussion with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the federal agency’s concerns about overcrowding, high homicide rates and sexual assaults. 

“But I think the staff over there would look at this through the lens of public safety,” Ward said of ADOC’s decision-making process.

Abbott in a followup message to APR on Friday said that this isn’t the first time inmates have been released on mandatory releases, however, and that the bureau is currently supervising 294 former inmates who were released on mandatory release. To date, the bureau has supervised 430 inmates released mandatorily through the legislation approved in 2015. Of the 294 the bureau is currently supervising, 114 are considered violent offenders. (Updated at 1:38 p.m. to include additional comments from Abbott) 

ADOC on Thursday announced that two staff members at the Ventress Correctional Facility, one at the Easterling Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center all self-reported as positive for coronavirus. 

While the number of prison staff testing positive for the virus has continued to rise in recent weeks, confirmed cases among inmates hasn’t yet broken into double digits. 

As of Thursday, all nine inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 have all since recovered, according to ADOC. 

Colony Wilson, 41, who was serving at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, died on May 11 after inmates at the facility told APR through letters and interviews with family members that Wilson had complained of shortness of breath, a symptom of COVID-19.

Prison staff also failed to promptly give Wilson aid after she collapsed in a stairwell, those inmates said. 

ADOC is investigating the death, and had previously told APR that Wilson hadn’t been tested for coronavirus before her death because she wasn’t exhibiting symptoms. 

ADOC announced on Wednesday that a worker at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center had tested positive for coronavirus.

Dave Thomas, 66, a terminally ill man serving a life-sentence at St. Clair Correctional Facility died April 16 after having been taken to a local hospital on April 4. He died less than 24 hours after testing positive for COVID-19, ADOC said in a statement at the time.

ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite the overcrowding in state prisons and threat to life from COVID-19, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles at the start of the outbreak suspended all parole hearings.

The three-member Pardons and Paroles Board on Tuesday held its first hearing since the coronavirus crisis began, and released just two of 22 inmates eligible for parole that day.

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