Editor’s note: The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted Tuesday afternoon to deny clemency or a reprieve for Will Speer, according to his lawyers. Speer’s legal challenges to his execution remain pending.
A sign reading “hug life” hangs on the door of Will Speer’s death row prison cell, an illustration of how the Houston native’s life has transformed over the past 25 years.
In 1991, at the age of 16, Speer killed a friend’s father because he believed the father was abusing his son. Seven years later, Speer murdered his cellmate in an attempt to join a prison gang, resulting in his death sentence.
Today, after coming to the realization that he had caused others irreparable harm, Speer leads a religious fellowship for death row inmates. His evolution has drawn praise from fellow inmates and prison officials, as well as calls for an execution reprieve from the sister of the man he killed in prison.
“His transformation stands out,” said Donna Coltharp, an assistant federal public defender with the Western District of Texas. “Not only because it’s so profound and obvious, but because he’s doing such good work with other people on the row as an example and as a friend.”
Speer and his lawyers hope his conversion will persuade state officials to spare his life, which is scheduled to end Thursday by lethal injection at a prison in Huntsville.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is scheduled Tuesday to consider Speer’s application for clemency and potentially issue a recommendation to Gov. Greg Abbott, who could convert the sentence to life in prison. Speer’s lawyers are also asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest appellate court, to delay the execution.
Speer, 49, faces long odds in his quest for a reprieve. Abbott has allowed prison officials to carry out 66 executions since taking office in 2015 while granting clemency once.
Speer’s lawyers, however, argue their client makes a compelling case for leniency.
In an interview and multiple court motions, they described Speer as a different person than the abused, traumatized teen who fell under the spell of an older man who encouraged him to kill. They also note Speer’s transformation into a model prisoner for the past two decades, becoming the first inmate coordinator of a faith-based program for Christian men on death row.
Their case is supported by Sammie Martin, whose brother was strangled to death by Speer.
Martin met with Speer for an hour last week and has requested a meeting with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Coltharp said. In the meantime, Martin has submitted a letter to the board asking for Speer’s sentence to be changed to life in prison.
“I’ve learned a lot about Mr. Speer in the past month, and 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,” Martin wrote.
Fated for trouble
In court records, Speer’s lawyers paint a portrait of a cruel childhood.
Speer’s parents and stepfather neglected and abused him, ordering him to stand in the corner with urine-soaked underwear over his head when he wet the bed. Family members and neighbors sexually abused him, trauma that took years to acknowledge.
Lacking self-esteem and somebody to look up to, Speer made friends with 19-year-old Franklin Manyoma, who was dating his 14-year-old cousin. Not long after they met, Manyoma asked Speer to kill their friend’s father, Jerry Collins, because Manyoma owed Collins money.
Under the belief that Collins was abusing his son the same way he had been abused, Speer agreed. The teen shot Collins, who was napping, in the head, according to a witness statement. Prosecutors charged the 16-year-old as an adult with murder, ultimately leading to a conviction and life sentence.
At his trial, a doctor recounted diagnosing Speer with a dependency disorder, characterized by an excessive need to be taken care of by others.
“He was just a baby,” Coltharp said. “Not just a baby because he was only 16, but uniquely a baby.”
The abuse of Speer continued in the Harris County Jail and the Hughes Unit, a prison west of Waco, his lawyers said. Prisoners wrapped toilet paper soaked in toothpaste around his feet and set them on fire. He endured numerous beatings, sometimes involving as many as three prisoners at once. Speer needed multiple surgeries after one inmate bit off part of his ear.
Speer felt even more vulnerable and isolated once he transferred to a prison near Texarkana. In an attempt to join a prison gang and win its protection, he strangled fellow inmate Gary Dickerson.
In 2001, a judge sentenced Speer to death.
A life rededicated
Speer began his spiritual journey while awaiting trial for the prison murder, his lawyers said. In subsequent years, he attended services and accepted visits from prison chaplains, but he never fully embraced religion.
Then, in July 2021, state prison officials chose Speer as one of 28 men to participate in the state’s first “Faith Based Program” for those on death row. Prison officials limited eligibility to those with no disciplinary infractions for the previous two years. The prison chaplain also had to issue a recommendation and the prison warden had to approve each inmate’s participation.
Speer thrived in the 18-month program, standing out as a leader, Coltharp said. The program offered something he didn’t have before: structure and an opportunity to commune with his fellow inmates.
Speer was baptized last year in a blue plastic swimming pool in the yard of a prison about 80 miles northeast of Houston. According to his clemency application, then-warden Daniel Dickerson was there.
“Something just clicked for him,” Coltharp said. “That is, as far as we can tell, universally acknowledged in the program.”
Forensic psychologist Matthew Mendel, who evaluated Speer for the effects of childhood abuse and neglect before and after the program, said in the clemency application that he identified “truly profound changes” in Speer.
“Will appears to be far more introspective, reflective and insightful now than was he was a few years ago,” he said.
Soon after graduating from the religious fellowship program in June, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice chose Speer to become the program’s first inmate coordinator, responsible for teaching classes, mentoring program participants and mediating conflicts. Speer has become the “face of the program,” Coltharp said.
But about a month after assuming his new role, Speer learned his execution date had been set.
‘Never too late’
Speer moved to a separate housing area known as “death watch” after receiving his execution date. Still, the warden gave him permission to leave the area twice a week for several hours to continue working as a program coordinator.
Speer’s lawyers and Martin, the murder victim’s sister, said they believe Speer’s commitment to ministering to others warrants a rare grant of clemency. Incidentally, Speer previously vouched for Thomas Whitaker, the only man to receive clemency from Abbott.
“Like that of the thief on the cross, Will’s journey was long, but it is never too late — and one is never too fallen — to seek mercy and choose a life of faith,” Maureen Franco, a federal public defender, wrote in Speer’s clemency application. “Indeed, his wandering and imperfect faith journey make him the perfect example for others still searching for light in the darkness.”
Efforts to reach Martin and family members of Collins, Speer’s other murder victim, were not successful.
If Abbott grants clemency, Speer plans to seek a bachelor’s degree in applied ministry and become a field minister, mentoring and tutoring others.
In a 22-minute video submitted with his clemency application, Speer acknowledged that “people are growing up having children, missing a grandfather, missing a brother, missing an uncle, missing a family member [who is] not there because of what I did.”
“I look in the mirror every day,” Speer said, “and I remember where I came from, and I remember what got me where I am today.”