If Texas Death Row inmate William Keith Speer is executed as scheduled Oct. 26, two men whose lives have been transformed by God will be present — one on the death chamber gurney and one in the adjacent viewing area.
Speer is a convicted two-time killer who committed his life to Christ while in prison and was baptized in June 2022 after spending six months in the faith-based program at the Allan B. Polunksy Unit, a maximum-security facility near Livingston. Later, he was selected as inmate coordinator for the program and has mentored fellow prisoners on Death Row.
J.C. Collins is the son of the first man Speer shot and killed, Jerry Lee Collins. He wants to be at the execution — not to satisfy a desire for vengeance but to pray for a man he has forgiven.
“I will be there on the day of his execution, but not for the reasons people think. I will listen to his last words. And then I’ll bow my head, close my eyes and say my own prayers for him,” Collins told the Baptist Standard. “I will keep my eyes closed until it’s over. I don’t want to see him die.”
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If Speer’s execution is delayed beyond Nov. 1, he will have spent 32 years in prison. First, while still a minor, he was tried as an adult and given a life sentence for the shooting death of Collins.
Later, he received a death sentence for the strangulation killing of a fellow inmate, Gary L. Dickerson, when they were at the Telford Unit in Bowie County.
“I know what I took from them,” Speer said in an interview with the Baptist Standard. “I know what I robbed from them and their families. I understand, because I’ve been there. The stepfather who abused me killed my mother. I know what it feels like.
“I can’t restore what I took away from them. But maybe I can give back some other way. By working with men who were broken like I was, I can give hope. I can’t bring back the lives I took, but I can restore hope where it has been taken away, and I can give God all the glory.”
Victim’s sister asks for commuted sentence
Dickerson’s sister, Sammie Gail Martin, submitted a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking the board and Gov. Greg Abbott to commute Speer’s sentence to a life in prison rather than execution.
“I have learned a lot about Mr. Speers [sic] in the past month and in my heart, I feel that he is not only remorseful for his actions but has been doing good work for others and has something left to offer the world,” Martin wrote.
As inmate coordinator of the faith-based program — the so-called “God Pod” — on Death Row at the Polunsky Unit, Speer is mentoring other inmates. The 18 inmates in the program spend up to 18 months in an area separate from the general inmate population where they can participate in curriculum focused on spiritual growth and personal improvement.
“Mr. Speer has carried out a true life of faith in prison,” said Amy Fly, Speer’s attorney. “He ministers to others and carries a message of hope and healing. If he is allowed to live the rest of his natural life in prison, he plans to join the Field Ministry Program, where his message can reach even more incarcerated people who were just as lost as he once was.”
Field ministers are inmates who have completed a bachelor of arts in biblical studies degree program offered to men through the TDCJ Memorial Unit — formerly known as the Darrington Unit — and to women through the Hobby Unit in Falls County. They receive certification as field ministers after receiving specialized training from the Heart of Texas Foundation Field Ministers Academy.
Petition for clemency filed
Maureen Franco, federal public defender for the Western District of Texas, and Donna F. Coltharp, assistant federal public defender, filed a petition for clemency Oct. 5 with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. They requested either Speer’s death sentence be commuted to a lesser penalty or that he be granted a 180-day reprieve for and interview and hearing to demonstrate repentance for past acts.
“Will is not the same person he was when he committed the crime that sent him to Death Row or the crime that sent him to prison at age 16,” the petition for clemency stated. “After intensive self-reflection and painful reckoning, Will profoundly regrets the choices he made, and the actions he took, that resulted in the deaths of Jerry Collins and Gary Dickerson.
“More significantly, he takes ownership of those failures, seeking both to atone for them and to help other incarcerated men in their own journeys of remorse, rehabilitation and redemption.”
A 180-day reprieve would enable Speer to continue mentoring other inmates in the faith-based program. After being selected by the field ministers and chaplain as coordinator, Speer began leading 13 inmates through curriculum last December.
“If Will is executed on October 26, he will have mentored the men for 10 months,” the clemency petition stated. “A reprieve of 180 days will enable him to see them through the centerpiece components of Bridges to Life and Overcomers.
“The 13 men who elected Will to lead them on their journey in the Faith Based Program need those additional six months. These men count on Will and lean on him, as they go through the difficult process of confronting, and correcting, their worst mistakes.”
‘Change happens here’
Speer’s greatest joy is helping his fellow prisoners work through curriculum that helped change his life and encouraging them to grow closer to God.
“As they go through the classes, I’m able to share my experiences and share things that can help them,” he said. “Change happens here.”
Speer currently is on death watch — under 24-hour-a-day surveillance with a camera in his cell. However, the prison has made special provision by allowing him to record a gospel program in his cell that is broadcast each Friday at 3 p.m. on the low-power prison radio station.
“I talk about my life experiences to give hope. So, even from No. 4 cell on death watch, I’m still able to reach out,” he said.
The petition for clemency stated Speer was subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse as a child, as well as neglect and bullying and an environment permeated by substance abuse.
“My father introduced me to marijuana, to cocaine, to methamphetamine,” Speer said. “When people are living an insane life, they do insane things.”
He recalled being punished for wetting the bed by being forced to stand in a corner with his urine-soaked underwear on his head for an extended time.
“I grew up believing so many lies,” Speer said. “I was told I was stupid. I was told I’d never amount to anything. I was told I would always be a failure.”
The petition for clemency linked both murders Speer committed to his history of abuse. In the first instance, a young man with money and influence allegedly convinced Speer to murder Collins, in part by claiming Collins was guilty of child abuse. His murder of Dickerson at the Telford Unit followed Speer’s extensive abuse as an inmate.
“As his need to belong had always led him to do, he sought to join a gang of men he believed were stronger than him and would protect him,” the petition stated. “To gain membership in the gang, he killed prisoner Gary Dickerson.”
However, after entering the faith-based program at the Polunsky Unit, Speer bears little resemblance to the person who killed two men, the petition asserted, saying Speer today “is not someone who is influenced by others toward violent ends, but someone who intervenes to stop violence and make prisons safer.”
The same day the clemency petition was filed, a dozen evangelicals also sent a letter to the board and Abbott, requesting clemency for Speer. Those who signed the letter include Stephen Reeves, executive director of Fellowship Southwest; Paul Basden, co-senior pastor of Preston Trail Community Church in Frisco; and Fisher Humphreys, professor emeritus at Samford University.
“Christianity teaches that we are not defined only by our actions but rather by being made in God’s image and, for Christians, being sons and daughters of God. This means all life is sacred, from our beginning through our natural death. We ask that you honor this Christian culture of life and grant clemency to Will Speer,” the letter stated.
A change of heart
For decades, Collins wanted Speer executed, but he had a change of heart growing out of a personal health crisis.
“As much as I thought I wanted for him to be executed, it’s hard to sit here and say that’s what I want,” he said.
Collins spent more than 30 years in what he calls a “self-imposed prison” of anger toward Speer until a cancer diagnosis last year forced him to his knees in prayer, where he found the grace to forgive Speer and let go of bitterness.
“I had to forgive. It was the only way I could move on — the only way I could grow as a husband and a father,” he said.
Ironically, Speer came to the same conclusion about the importance of forgiveness at about the same time.
“I first had to learn how to forgive myself” for making bad choices that led to tragic consequences, he noted. “Then that opened the door for me to forgive others who harmed me.”
Collins and Speer grew up in the same neighborhood and had friends in common.
“I don’t know if he remembers it, but the first time we met was when a couple of guys tried to jump him to take his bike, and I stepped in and went to his defense,” Collins said of Speer.
‘Forgiveness is a process’
Collins acknowledges conflicting — sometimes contradictory — feelings toward Speer in the past three decades.
“I’m thankful he’s apparently found God. My God is a forgiving God. I’ve just had a hard time with my earthly mind coming to terms with my spiritual mind,” he admitted.
When Speer murdered Collins’ father, it drastically affected the victim’s family.
“One rock tossed in a lake can send out ripples a long way. Thirty-two years later, the ripples of what happened that night are still traveling,” Collins said. “I still suffer from PTSD. I’m the one who found my father” after Speer shot him.
Collins said God has released him from a burden of bitterness toward Speer, but he in no way minimizes Speer’s crimes. He simply acknowledges God’s forgiveness.
“The things he did were reprehensible. … But I’m not taking anything away from the good work he’s doing for the Lord. There’s no such thing as too-little, too-late for God,” he said.
As a Christian, Collins said he knew he should forgive Speer. In fact, he tried — repeatedly.
“I forgave that man a long time ago, but I kept taking it back,” he said.
Speer understand that, as well, both in terms of accepting God’s forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others.
“Forgiveness is a process,” he said.
‘My own self-imposed prison’
At times, Collins said, he wanted nothing more than to see Speer executed. Other times, he felt some measure of sympathy for him.
“The State of Texas took a child who killed and turned him into a killer. I don’t know if it’s all his fault,” Collins said.
“My whole family told his family we thought he was manipulated, and we would not oppose his parole. But then he committed another murder. He would have been out on parole by now, but he squandered the opportunity.”
When Collins was diagnosed with cancer last year and faced the prospect of his own death, he finally let go of his bitterness toward Speer and asked God to take away the anger that shaped his life for three decades.
“For a very long time, I allowed my father’s death to define me. I was a victim,” Collins said.
“I had a lot of pride. I had to learn humility. I’m different — less vindictive, less angry. … I cannot allow other people to have power over who I am and what I am.”
“I was in my own self-imposed prison for years, but I don’t have to be any more. God took it from me.”
During Speer’s remaining time — however long that may be — he said he wants to use it to encourage other inmates in their spiritual growth and to let others know about a peace that transcends circumstances.
“I pray God will continue to use me. But the fact is that God already has used me,” Speer said. “If God doesn’t do another thing for me, he’s already done enough.”