Appeals court stops planned execution of Texas inmate convicted of killing a fellow prisoner

HOUSTON (AP) — Texas’ top criminal appeals court has stopped Thursday evening’s scheduled execution of a Texas inmate who had been condemned for killing another prisoner more than 26 years ago.

William Speer, 49, had been set to receive a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. The victim’s sister and religious leaders had recently asked authorities to spare his life.

Speer was convicted of the strangling death of Gary Dickerson in July 1997 at the Telford state prison, located near New Boston in northeast Texas.

His attorneys had asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stop his execution over allegations that prosecutors at his 2001 trial failed to disclose evidence, presented false testimony and that his trial lawyers failed to present evidence about Speer’s troubled childhood. They say Speer was physically and sexually abused as a child. Prosecutors have denied the allegations against them.

Less than five hours before his scheduled execution at 6 p.m. CDT, the appeals court granted the request by Speer’s attorneys.

“We have reviewed the application and find that (Speer’s) execution should be stayed pending further order of this Court,” the appeals court wrote in its two-page order.

Speer’s lawyers said the stay order cannot be appealed to federal courts because it is a state law issue.

His lawyers said Speer has transformed while in prison, expressed regret for his actions and now helps lead a religious program that ministers to other death row inmates.

“We are relieved that Will Speer will live to see another day so he can continue to spread his message of hope and healing in Texas prisons,” said Amy Fly, one of Speer’s attorneys. “Will’s life of ministry, and his efforts to offer some measure of peace to his victims’ families, are an inspiration. We are grateful for the thousands of people, including faith leaders and his victims’ survivors, who told the State of Texas that Will’s life was worth saving.”

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

“I am so aware of the things that I’ve done. I’m so aware of the pain and the hurt that I’ve caused. I could just say that I’m sorry,” Speer said in a video submitted as part of an earlier clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Speer’s attorneys had also asked to stop his execution over claims the state’s supply of pentobarbital, the drug used in executions, was exposed to extreme heat during an August fire at a state prison, making it unsafe. A federal judge and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had earlier this week denied appeals on that claim. A similar allegation made by another inmate, Jedidiah Murphy, was unsuccessful and he was executed earlier this month.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office said the execution drugs were tested after the fire for potency and sterility. Murphy’s execution showed the state can “handle Speer’s execution in a safe and humane manner,” authorities said.

At the time of inmate Dickerson’s killing, Speer had been serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a friend’s father, Jerry Collins, at the man’s Houston area home in January 1991. Speer was 16 then.

The paroles board on Tuesday voted 7-0 against commuting Speer’s death sentence to a lesser penalty. Members also rejected granting a six-month reprieve.

Speer killed Dickerson in a bid to join the Texas Mafia prison gang, prosecutors said. The gang ordered the hit after mistakenly concluding Dickerson had informed authorities about tobacco it had tried to smuggle into the prison.

Speer and another inmate, Anibal Canales Jr. were sentenced to death for the killing. Canales remains on death row.

At Speer’s trial, Sammie Martin, who is Dickerson’s only living sibling, told jurors her mother was devasted by her brother’s death.

But Martin asked that Speer’s life be spared.

“I have spent much time reflecting on what justice my brother and my family deserved,” Martin wrote in federal court documents filed earlier this week. “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 said she was never informed by prosecutors about Speer’s scheduled execution.

In court documents filed this week, lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Office said that despite Martin’s feelings about Speer’s execution, “the state retains its interest in deterring gang murders and prison violence, as well as seeing justice done for Dickerson.”

A group of religious leaders from around the country have also asked that Speer be spared. In a letter to the paroles board and Gov. Greg Abbott, they wrote that Speer’s religious work with other prisoners “does not excuse his actions, but it gives us a fuller picture of who Will is as a human, Christian, leader, and teacher.”

Two more executions are scheduled in Texas this year.


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