Texas Plans to Execute Will Speer, a Faith Leader on Death Row, Despite Victim’s Sister’s Request for Clemency

Updated 10.27.23 Originally published 10.20.23


The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Will Speer’s execution yesterday, just hours before the scheduled execution, after his attorneys filed a petition alleging that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and presented false testimony at his trial and that his trial lawyers failed to present mitigating evidence about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered.

Texas plans to execute Will Speer next week despite pleas from the victim’s sole living relative and dozens of faith leaders calling on the State to spare Mr. Speer’s life so that he may continue his powerful ministry and teaching.

“In my heart, I feel that he is not only remorseful for his actions but has been doing good works for others and has something left to offer the world,” Sammie Gail Martin, sister of victim Gary L. Dickerson, said in a clemency application filed last week before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. “I respectfully request that his sentence be changed to life in prison where hopefully he can continue to help others and make amends for his past crimes.”

Mr. Speer was selected as the first incarcerated faith-based coordinator for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Faith-Based Program in June, after he graduated with honors because he demonstrated “a commitment to change that is readily observable to … peers, the unit chaplain, and Field Ministers.”

Based “on the belief that individuals, no matter their past, can change,” the program involves 20 to 30 hours per week of study and community discussion to help participants “reach a point in their lives where they are truly repentant for their actions, seek forgiveness, and find inner peace with God,” TDCJ Chaplain Joaquin Gay told the Chronicle.

Redemption for the “Irredeemable”

Will Speer was born in Houston to parents who were both suffering from drug addiction. His father beat his mother and threw her down stairs, and beat and humiliated Will. “He punished him for his bed-wetting, which persisted into his teenage years, by wrapping Speer’s urine-soaked underwear around his head and making him stand in a corner until it dried,” the Austin Chronicle reported.

Will’s stepfather was even worse, according to the Chronicle. He degraded Will, who was held back in school due to learning disabilities, as fat, worthless, and “retarded,” and whipped, stomped, and burned Will with cigarettes. Will’s stepfather was sentenced to life in prison after he shot Will’s mother three times in the head.

During this period of brutal attacks by his stepfather, Will was also being sexually abused by a neighbor, the Chronicle wrote. His mother sent him to live with his father when he was 15, but “his father pressured him to inject meth and cocaine and to watch pornography with him,” according to the Chronicle. “He accused his son of stealing his drugs and slammed him so hard against the wall of his home that the Sheetrock was crushed and outlined in blood.”

The Chronicle reports that Will went back to Houston, where he was so desperate to belong that when a friend asked him to kill another friend’s father, he did.

Will was only 16 but he was tried in adult court and sentenced to life imprisonment in an adult prison, where the teen was targeted for abuse, as vividly described by the Chronicle:

He was beaten until bruises and cuts covered his body. Inmates wrapped toilet paper around his feet as he slept and lit it on fire, causing second-degree burns. He had part of an ear bitten off and spent three weeks in the hospital, receiving multiple surgeries.

Seeking protection, Will asked to join a gang and, when its leader ordered him to kill an incarcerated man, he agreed. He was charged with capital murder and convicted in 1997.

Under Texas law, a jury cannot impose a death sentence unless it finds that the person will forever be a “future danger.” Will’s sentencing jury heard nothing about his childhood or the abuse he suffered in prison before it decided that, at 23 years old, Will was irredeemable. Finding he would always be dangerous, the jury sentenced Will Speer to death.

In solitary confinement on Texas’s death row 23 hours a day and denied access to rehabilitative programs, Mr. Speer told the Chronicle he felt hopeless. “I was looking around my cell and really coming to the realization of my poor choices and poor decisions and that I don’t have the answer,” he said. “And, because of that, I cried out to God. There wasn’t a voice—it wasn’t something like that. It was me making the decision to say that I don’t have the answers, but I know that God does.”

In 2021, Mr. Speer was selected for the Faith-Based Program, where he and 27 other men were allowed to study, pray, and sing together with support from chaplains, field ministers, and visits from the warden. Six months into the program, Mr. Speer experienced human contact for the first time in two decades when he was baptized.

Today, Mr. Speer mentors and ministers to other men on death row, teaches classes, and mediates conflicts. His fellow prisoners report that he has prevented people from engaging in violence many times and have written that his work is greatly improving death row. Each morning, even as his execution date approaches, Mr. Speer delivers inspirational sermons over the prison’s radio station.

Mr. Speer’s attorneys submitted a clemency petition on October 6 asking the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that the governor commute his sentence to life imprisonment without parole, so that he can spend the rest of his life serving as a Field Minister “to help others by sharing his story of hardship, sin, repentance, and peacemaking.”

Mr. Speer is an “instrument of change for other incarcerated men,” whose “witness of repentance and restitution would have a powerful effect on the men inside, bringing peace and hope to men who are often short of both,” said Chaplain’s Assistant Joseph Lee.

Dozens of faith leaders and others, including the victim’s sister, have called on the board to grant clemency. “All life is sacred, from our beginning through our natural death,” a group of evangelical leaders wrote in support of Mr. Speer, and a grant of clemency would “honor this Christian culture of life.”

The board has recommended commutation only five times in 30 years, according to DPIC.

The State of Texas never contacted Ms. Martin, the victim’s sister, even as it repeatedly argued in court that it was seeking to execute Mr. Speer on the victim’s behalf. After it learned that Ms. Martin opposes the execution, the State said it will continue to pursue the execution date against her wishes, DPIC reported.

Mr. Speer told the Chronicle he feels no bitterness for the chaplains who have supported him or the prison staff tasked with carrying out his execution. But while he said he doesn’t blame people who think that men on death row are incapable of change—that is, after all, the legal premise for his and every death sentence in Texas—his own story is proof that no one is beyond redemption.

“I don’t judge these officers for having a job to do and following through with that job,” he said. “I understand what people think about us men here on Death Row,” he continued. “I believe they are wrong, but because I can accept it, I can have peace.”