UTAH STATE PRISON — A former Marine Corps reservist. who served in Afghanistan and Iraq before being medically discharged for post-traumatic stress disorder, is seeking to be released from prison early after serving nearly 13 years for killing his girlfriend.
Walter Smith, 37, is serving a one-to-15 year sentence at the Utah State Prison for a conviction of manslaughter. On March 24, 2006, Smith drowned his 22-year-old girlfriend and mother of the couple's 10-month-old twins, Nicole Speirs, in a bathtub.
At first, Speirs death was a mystery. The Utah State Medical Examiner's report termed it an unexplained death.
Eight months later, Smith confessed to the killing after checking himself into the Veteran's Administration Hospital. He accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to prison in 2007.
After his original parole hearing in 2011, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole ordered Smith to serve his full sentence, which will expire in December 2021. But on Dec. 11, Smith went before board Vice Chairwoman Carrie Cochran to ask for an early release.
Speirs' mother, Pauline Speirs, however, hopes the board will stick to its original decision.
"I would love to have the option to have our sentence come to an end,” she said in a recording of the hearing. "I ask that you understand, and that 15 years was mild compared to the lifetime sentence he gave us to live without our daughter."
Speirs called Smith's actions "unforgivable."
"I can’t imagine the thoughts that went through her mind as the man she trusted to share her life with, share a home with, was the one forcefully ending it,” she said.
When asked to respond, Smith did not dispute what Speirs said.
"I can’t disagree with anything she said. It’s true. I stole Nicole from all of her friends and family and there’s nothing I can do to change that. All I can do is say I’m sorry for the terrible decision that I made,” he said.
Smith spoke slowly and took several long pauses during the 42 minute hearing, but did not offer excuses for his actions.
Cochran noted that Smith had not had a single disciplinary violation since being incarcerated, and completed numerous life skills classes.
"It appears you have done really quite well,” she told Smith during the hearing.
Cochran asked Smith how he had dealt with his PTSD since being in prison. He said that openly talking to other inmates, notably a group of "Lifers" — inmates convicted of murder — about what he was feeling inside, both during counseling sessions and on his own, had helped tremendously.
"Tried to recognize what’s going on inside myself and try to actually think about the decisions I’m going to make,” he said of how his thought process had changed.
Even before the murder, when Smith was going to the VA Hospital, he said "I wasn’t willing to talk about anything that I felt might cause people to think I was crazy. That part has changed. Not being afraid to talk about feelings and emotions and just what’s going on has changed.
"I didn’t know how to talk about anything," he continued. "Everything got bottled up. I didn’t talk to VA about PTSD. I wanted to ignore everything because I didn’t want to see that anything was wrong, and made the worst possible decision I could have made."
When asked why he made the decision to kill Nicole Speirs, he said he didn't have an answer.
"I don’t know why I made the decision to kill Nicole. I really don’t. A year before, I don’t know why I made the decision to kill myself. I didn’t do that,” he said.
Smith currently has no contact with his children, but wants to be part of their lives.
"But that's not my decision," said Smith, who no longer has parental rights,Comment on this story
Smith said he will respect the decision to have no contact with the twins. But he hopes that some day they will want to contact him.
Cochran said the decision before the board now is whether to grant Smith early release with supervision, or allow him to walk out of prison when his sentence expires with no supervision at all. She admitted she was leaning toward granting an earlier parole date in order to give some oversight to his release.
The full five member board was expected to make a decision in a few weeks.