With just 30 minutes until he was due to die via lethal injection, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker’s life was spared on Thursday.
The Texas man was to be executed for trying to kill his entire family. The 38-year-old succeeded in murdering his younger brother and mother and severely wounded his father, Kent Whitaker, in the brutal 2003 attack.
In 2007, Bart was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.
On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott commuted Bart’s sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Abbott’s decision followed a unanimous decision for commutation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now,” Abbott said in a statement explaining his reasoning for granting clemency. “The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.”
The Governor’s decision was influenced by Bart’s only surviving victim – his father, as Kent had vowed he would one day forgive the person responsible even before he realized his son was to blame.
Gov. Abbott mentioned grieving father Kent’s plea for a life sentence as he announced his clemency decision.
“Mr. Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son. Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member,” he said in his proclamation.
“Also, Mr. Whitaker voluntarily and forever waived any and all claims to parole in exchange for a commutation of his sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole,” Abbott continued, concluding, “Mr. Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime.”
In a clemency petition, Bart’s attorneys said his deeply religious father begged the district attorney’s office with biblical quotations to seek life in prison for his son and was denied.
“Imagine two people in your family who you love most. Now, imagine one of them murders the other. There must be punishment. But would you prefer execution? What if that person was your only remaining child?” the lawyers wrote as reported by NBC News.
According to the Texas Tribune, the last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2009, and the last time a Texas Governor approved it was in 2007.
The Washington Post reports that the prosecutors of the case — Fort Bend County District Attorney John F. Healey, Jr., and first Assistant District Attorney Fred Felcman — believe Whitaker’s sentence is appropriate for the crime.
“I haven’t met any person aside from Mr. [Kent] Whitaker” who says justice hasn’t been served, Felcman said.
But Kent, who calls himself the “greatest victim in this case,” told CBS News, “You don’t have to convince me how awful this crime was.”
He adds, “I’ve lived it for 14 years now. But that doesn’t mean the death penalty was the right choice in this case.”
The Horrific Night
On December 20, 2003, Whitaker told his father and mother Tricia that he’d just completed his final exams at nearby Sam Houston State University and that he would be graduating, according to ABC News.
To celebrate, the entire family, along with Whitaker’s younger brother, Kevin, 19, went out to a popular restaurant. The family gave Whitaker a Rolex and took photos of the occasion.
“We had a wonderful time before dinner and then packing up and driving over to the restaurant, and all the way home,” Kent told the news outlet.
But that joyous night quickly turned into a nightmare. Later that evening, Kevin and Tricia were both fatally shot by the door, while Kent was wounded.
Whitaker, who had left the home after saying he was going to get his cell phone, returned and then pretended to try to confront the shooter and shot himself in his arm, he told ABC.
After returning from the hospital, where he recovered from a 9mm bullet hole that had struck him six inches from his heart, Kent and Whitaker lived together for nearly seven months. Even when Whitaker became the main suspect, Kent stood by his son.
“He continued to deny it, and the police continued to say he was their suspect,” Kent told The Washington Post. “I didn’t know who was telling the truth. I told the police, ‘If I see something, I’m going to tell you. But I’m not going to abandon my son. I’m going to stand with him through all of this even if he’s responsible.’ ”
Whitaker was eventually arrested in Mexico after investigators discovered he plotted the murders in the hopes of collecting the family’s estate, which was worth more than $1 million.
Whitaker’s friend, Chris Brashear, pleaded guilty to a murder charge and was sentenced to life in prison. His other friend, Steve Champagne, who drove Brashear from the house the night of the shootings, took the plea deal with a 15-year prison sentence in exchange for his testimony against Whitaker.
“I’m 100 percent guilty,” Whitaker testified at his trial in 2007. “I put the plan in motion.”
Kent, who has since remarried, told the Post that “this isn’t just a case of a dad who is ignoring the truth about his son. Believe me, I’m aware of what his choices have cost me.”
Kent has always believed that Whitaker’s sentence wasn’t justified because no one in his family or his late wife’s advocated for his execution.
“I’m honoring their memory,” Kent said about his family. “I know they would not want Bart’s life taken for this. They would be horrified at what’s happening.”