William Speer, 49, has been on death row in Texas for decades
Less than five hours before William Keith Speer’s slated lethal injection, the Texas Board of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution yesterday “pending further order” by the court.
Speer, who has spent all but the first 16 years of his life behind bars — most of them on death row for strangling to death fellow inmate Gary Dickerson in 1997 — was supported in his request to halt his execution by Dickerson’s sister, Sammie Martin.
“I have spent much time reflecting on what justice my brother and my family deserved,” Martin wrote in a letter filed in federal court earlier this week, the Associated Press reported. “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.”
In the two-page stay order, reviewed by PEOPLE, the judges – who did not agree unanimously on the stay – shied from taking a stance on much of anything: Listing Speer’s five claims for the stay without sharing their findings and reserving any final decision about a future execution for a later, unspecified date.
Despite his uncertain future, Speer’s supporters took the win yesterday.
“Will Speer will live to see another day and continue to spread his message of hope and healing in Texas prisons,” Burke Butler Executive Director of Texas Defender Service, a group that litigates and advocates to end the death penalty and who led a social media campaign for clemency in Speer’s case, said in a press release. He noted that “thousands” of people had joined Dickerson’s sister and faith leaders across the country “to tell Texas that Will’s life was worth saving.”
Speer, who was baptized in a giant kiddie pool in the prison yard, is now a frequent voice on the 6 a.m. prison radio Faith Based Program show. His supporters say his faith in God has given him the grounded stability he craved growing up and that he could spend the rest of his life in jail working as a field minister, making the lives of other inmates better, as he has already begun doing as an official mentor among his fellow prisoners.
David Santiago Renteria, himself slated for execution next month, wrote that Speer’s “willingness to lay himself bare before others [has] served as inspiration for many in our community, and made a difference in how we as a group relate to one another as part of creation,” according to a press release by the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks nationwide executions and quoted his letter. Renteria added that Speer’s testimony “has caused many [on death row] to look deeper when it comes to repenting of our own broken paths.”
Donna Coltharp, an assistant federal public defender with the Western District of Texas who is part of Speer’s legal team, told Houston Landing that they are “in a holding pattern,” waiting on a final decision regarding his execution. She added that the order gives Speer “a minimum of 90 more days.”
The last-minute stay came on the heels of a letter Martin submitted to the court on behalf of Speer earlier this week.
But other court filings this week suggest it will remain an uphill battle for Speer. Lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s Office have maintained their interest in pursuing his execution, saying in documents filed ahead of the judges’ decision that “the state retains its interest in deterring gang murders and prison violence, as well as seeing justice done for Dickerson,” the AP reported.
And although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has the authority to commute Speer’s death sentence to life in prison, he has done so only once, Houston Landing reported, on behalf of Thomas Bartlett. Over the course of his more than 8 years as governor, 66 inmates have been executed, according to the outlet.
Speer’s appeal – which will continue to slug through the Texas federal court system – is based on a handful of legal claims about the case, laid out in the stay order: That his Brady rights were violated, that prosecutors presented false testimony at two different points in the trial, that he had ineffective counsel during his sentencing and that the Attorney General’s Office Special Prosecution Unit overstepped in their prosecuting of his case. The panel of judges would likely make any future decision about his execution based on those arguments.
Anibal Canales, Jr. – the second inmate convicted of killing Dickerson in his own prison cell – remains on death row, according to his online file with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Canales was scheduled for execution earlier this year, but it was also postponed, the AP reported in March.
Twenty inmates in five states have been put to death across the country so far this year, according to an execution list updated earlier this month by the Death Penalty Information Center. More than half of those executions have occurred in Florida and Speer’s home state of Texas.
“Nobody's entitled to — to any of this,” Speer said a video where he pleaded the state for his life. “I'm appealing for this opportunity to give more — to give back. Not because I've done something and I’ve become entitled to a different change. That's not what I'm saying at all. But what I am asking is for the opportunity to be able to give the love that I've been given.”
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