Nathaniel Woods, executed in Alabama, faced religious injustice in both life and death
by Maha Hilal
“Hell on Earth.” According to Imam Yusuf Maisonet, that’s the nickname that’s widely used to describe the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in southwest Alabama, which houses the state’s death chamber.
It was the last place on earth inhabited by Nathaniel “Nate” Woods, an incarcerated Black Muslim man who was executed on March 5. His death by lethal injection has yet again raised questions about capital punishment and the religious rights of those behind bars.
Maisonet, the imam of Masjid As Salam in Mobile, Alabama, ministers to Muslims inside the facility. The prison is so dilapidated, crowded, and understaffed that the state Department of Corrections announced in January that it will move hundreds of the people incarcerated there to other facilities. When it comes to Muslims, Maisonet told me something even more sinister: namely, that the prison was “trying to clean out the Muslim population.”
Woods was the imam’s latest death row case—one that vividly demonstrates that anti-Blackness and Islamophobia trump possible exonerating evidence. His case, like many others, also shows the ways that incarcerated Muslims have been systematically denied their religious freedoms as they breathe their last breaths and transition to death. This is just one of the cases that has solidified Maisonet’s belief that “injustice is deeply entrenched in institutions ranging from the police department to the court system,” and that most of the men behind Holman’s bars don’t stand a chance at justice.
Woods’ ordeal began when police came to the residence that he shared with his roommate Spencer Woods (no relation). The police had come to issue a misdemeanor warrant because the roommates were allegedly selling crack cocaine, and the three officers were ultimately killed. Though Woods did not shoot the police officers himself, he was considered an accomplice for supposedly luring the officers into his home so his roommate could shoot them. Both men became co-defendants and were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Spencer confirmed that Woods was not involved in the killings of the three officers, penning a letter from prison which said that Woods was "100% innocent,” adding that “I know this to be a fact because I'm the person that shot and killed all three officers." Nevertheless, Woods was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005. His death sentence, however, was based on a flawed legal system in Alabama that allows for the imposition of a death sentence even if the jury is not unanimous in their judgement—other states don’t allow that. In Woods’ case, the jury was split 10-2. The judge could have overridden the jury’s decision, but chose not to.
Maisonet met Woods three years ago and said that since knowing him, he had studied and practiced Muslim rituals such as observing prayer. He made his commitment to the faith official on Feb. 24, exactly 10 days before his execution. His observance of Islam made it important to him that certain practices were observed after he died. That’s why on Mar. 2, the imam delivered a letter to the secretary of the warden regarding the prison’s intent to perform an autopsy on Woods. Prism obtained exclusive access to the letter, which stated:
“On the 25 of February, Nathaniel Woods accepted Islam as his faith, and I, Imam Yusef Maisonet, administer his Shahadah (conversion). He is going to be executed March 5, 2020 and we request that no autopsy be performed on the body since it is against our religious beliefs and the cause of death will be known, we request this final act to the Warden of Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama. Nathaniel Woods has given me the rights over his body and burial.”
One day later, Woods sent a letter to prison officials giving Maisonet permission to claim and bury his body in Ar Rahma Muslim Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.
Maisonet was unable to be present in the room where witnesses view the execution due to timing, and he was also unable to be in the chamber where prisoners are actually executed. This wasn’t the first time that restriction had been put in place. In 2019, Domineque Ray, another Black Muslim executed by the state of Alabama, was not allowed to have his imam with him during his death. Maisonet had attended to Ray as well, and from death row, Ray filed a legal challenge asking that Maisonet be allowed in the chamber as he died, saying that a Christian chaplain employed by the prison has typically been allowed in the small room. The Supreme Court denied a stay, staying that Ray had waited too long to make this request, and the only concession the Alabama prison made was to remove the reverend from the death chamber. A few weeks after Ray was executed, a white Buddhist in Texas, Patrick Henry Murphy, faced a similar situation. In that case, due to the lack of a Buddhist spiritual advisor in the death chamber, he was granted a stay of execution.
In Ray’s case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “The plaintiff has not made any showing that the State’s provisions for religious accommodations to death row inmates, which permit a prisoner to commune with his advisor up until the moment that he enters the execution chamber, amount to a ‘substantial burden.’” The decision in Murphy’s case contradicted that almost entirely, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing, “As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution. The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations.” Allegedly, the different results in the two cases were just a result of timing. As with many of the policies, laws, and practices of the United States, this was yet another example of the denial of religious freedoms to Muslims—particularly when it comes to incarcerated Muslims. Because of the outcome of the ruling on Murphy’s case, Texas moved to ban clergy in general from the death chamber.
Despite the fact that prisoners are guaranteed general religious rights through the protection of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the right to have a chaplain of one’s religious background in the death chamber isn’t specifically stated. However, when it comes to discrepancies between the treatment of different religious groups and the denial or permission to have one’s religious adviser present in the death chamber, the Establishment Clause’s principle of denominational neutrality provides a standard that precludes treatment that prefers one religion over another. The Alabama Department of Corrections has a policy that in order for a religious adviser to be present in the death chamber, the adviser must know certain protocols pertaining to the execution process. But no training or information on it has ever been extended to Maisonet.
On the day of Woods’ execution, Maisonet met with him one last time at 4:30 PM. They prayed together and Maisonet gave Woods a Quran. Maisonet also told Woods to repeatedly recite the opening chapter of the Quran and the Muslim profession of faith as he took his last breaths. Their meeting ended at 5:15 PM. Officials at the prison made Maisonet leave and go to a nearby Hampton Inn, where he was told they would come get him to witness the impending execution.
But from that point on, Maisonet was pretty much left in the dark. He called the prison multiple times. After each passing and precious minute, he began doubting that he would be able to witness the execution after all. He went home—about 35 minutes away—and after 8:30 PM, learned that Woods’ execution would proceed in mere minutes. But by then, there was no way he would be able to get to the death cell in time. Realizing this, Maisonet said he “felt that there was a deliberate plan to keep me out of the prison.”
Woods’ execution had been originally scheduled for 6 PM, pending intervention from Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey or the U.S. Supreme Court. Thirty minutes before the execution, the Supreme Court granted Woods a stay of execution in response to a last-minute appeal for clemency by his legal team. Ivey declined to offer clemency and came out in support of Woods’ execution, writing that, “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.”
Woods’ fate was sealed at 7:52 PM—a half hour before Maisonet left for home—when the Supreme Court vacated the stay on the execution. Alabama moved ahead with ending Woods’ life.
Maisonet was unable to be present in either the room where witnesses view the execution, and he was also unable to be in the chamber where prisoners are actually executed.
Woods was pronounced dead at about 9 PM, but the injustice didn’t end with his life. It followed him into the grave after he was given an autopsy against his wishes and religious beliefs. Maisonet said that when he received Woods’ body, “he was cut up, with no one bothering to sew the wounds back up.” To the imam, this was “an act … larger than Nathaniel, it was about sending a message of intimidation to anyone who supported him.”
Maisonet said the Muslim community has largely been afraid of showing support for Woods and other cases due to backlash they might face from law enforcement and prison officials. But that hasn’t halted the prison from executing two Muslim prisoners in the past 14 months.
To view these cases in isolation, said Maisonet, would “a denial of the impossible barriers that exist when it comes to adjudicating the innocence of Black Muslim prisoners, in addition to a failure to understand the violence at the root of the [United States’] carceral system.” Organizers within the Muslim community agree. “Nathaniel Woods was a brother, father, son, and our brother in Islam. As Muslims, we oppose the injustice of his murder and the historic and continuing injustices of the death penalty,” said Nabihah Maqbool, an attorney and coordinator for Believers Bail Out. While some Muslims have stayed silent out of fear or otherwise, she added, “as a community-led project dedicated to bailing Muslims out of pretrial incarceration and ICE custody, Believers Bail Out seeks to abolish our prison industrial complex that preys on the poor and our most vulnerable, especially those who are Black and Muslim like Nathaniel Woods.”
Woods was buried on Mar. 8 in Atlanta, Georgia, probably to the sounds of the verse from the Quran that is recited when a Muslim dies: “To God we belong and to God we return.”
Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia in the War on Terror. She is currently a co-director for Justice for Muslims Collective, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, and a council member of the School of the Americas Watch.
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