The father of the man whose execution was commuted just before he was scheduled to be put to death said on Megyn Kelly TODAY that he is grateful his son’s life was spared — even after the son’s conviction for plotting the murder of his family members and the attempted murder of the dad himself.
“I feel a great sense of relief and hope,” Kent Whitaker told Kelly, adding, “He’s been given a second chance at life.”
In an attempt to gain hold of the family’s $1 million estate, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, plotted the murders of younger brother and mother in a brutal 2003 attack he masterminded that left Kent severely injured.
While Kent was in the hospital recovering from his near fatal wounds, he vowed to forgive whoever was behind the murders. Months later, he was shocked to learn the identity of the killer: his own son, Bart.
Leaning on his Christian faith, Kent begged authorities to spare his son’s life ever since Bart was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death in 2007. He argued that as the only surviving victim, he would be victimized yet again if his son were put to death.
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On Thursday, after an emotional goodbye with his son, Kent learned that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott commuted Bart’s sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“People use the term bizarre, but that’s what it was,” he told Kelly. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We started the day not knowing what was going to happen, believing that Gov. Greg Abbott would commute the sentence but not knowing.”
Abbott’s decision followed a unanimous decision on Tuesday for commutation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
It is the first death sentence Gov. Abbott has ever overturned.
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On Thursday, Kent and his wife, Tanya Whitaker, drove to the prison to say their final goodbyes to Bart.
“It was extremely sad,” he said. “We touched the glass with our hands and said goodbye.”
Officials ended the call at 5 p.m. While Tanya went to the observation room during the injection, Kent decided at the last minute not to go.
Then word came that his sentence had been commuted.
“I want to thank all the people all over the world who have prayed for this,” Kent told reporters just after he learned that his son’s life had been spared.
Upon learning his fate, Bart told prison officials, “I’m thankful not for me but for my dad. Any punishment that I would have or will receive is just, but my dad did nothing wrong. The system worked for him today. And I will do my best to uphold my role in the system.”
In a statement explaining his reasoning for granting clemency, Abbott said, “In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now.
“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 said Kent’s pleas for his son’s life influenced his decision.
“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.
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,” Bart testified at his trial in 2007. “I put the plan in motion.”