Texas governor spares inmate from execution after a father’s pleas

Kent Whitaker with his son, Bart, in prison

Kent Whitaker with his son, Bart, in prison

Meagan Flynn, Washington Post

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker had already eaten his last meal.

It was about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, roughly a half-hour before his scheduled execution in a Texas prison. He was supposed to be strapped to a gurney soon.

Whitaker had been sentenced to death for orchestrating the ambush-style murders of his family in 2003 as they returned to their suburban Houston home. An accomplice fatally shot Whitaker’s 51-year-old mother, Patricia, and his 19-year-old brother, Kevin.

Whitaker’s father, Kent, survived his wounds. In the years that followed, he not only forgave his son for his crimes but also pleaded tirelessly with Texas officials not to execute him.

On Tuesday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles announced it had made the unanimous decision to recommend that the death sentence be commuted, according the Associated Press. Now the decision was in the governor’s hands. He could accept the recommendation, reject it or do nothing, which meant the execution would proceed as scheduled.

As the minutes ticked down to execution time, Kent Whitaker prayed. Then came the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had issued a proclamation commuting his son’s death sentence to life in prison.

“We were in a hospitality house that one of the churches in the area has on [execution] days, and there were a dozen people, I would guess, in the room at the time,” Kent said afterward at a news conference in Huntsville. “We were actually standing together praying when my phone rang.”

The caller was Keith Hampton, the lawyer who had helped Kent petition the state to spare his son’s life. “It was overpowering,” Kent said of the news. “I was so grateful.”

It appeared to be only the third time since 1976 that a Texas governor granted clemency to spare a death row inmate’s life, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center.

Under Abbott’s tenure, 30 prisoners have been put to death by legal injection. Whitaker’s was the sole reprieve.

In a statement, the governor said several factors played into his decision. For one, he said, the parole board recommended that Whitaker’s life be spared — a rare move in a state that has executed more people since 1976 than any other state, by a wide margin: 548, next to Virginia’s 113.

Secondly, Abbott said, Whitaker did not pull the trigger, yet the person who did escaped the death penalty. That gunman, Chris Brashear, is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to a murder charge in 2007. Another accomplice, getaway driver Steven Champagne, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In addition, the governor said, he had listened to the pleas from Whitaker’s father.

“Mr. Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son,” Abbott wrote in the statement. “Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member.”

In exchange for the commutation, Abbott noted that Whitaker gave up the possibility of parole, ensuring that he will die in prison for a crime the governor described as “reprehensible” and “heinous.”

Whitaker was convicted in 2007 of orchestrating the ambush on his family as they returned home from dinner celebrating his upcoming college graduation. Police would later learn he wasn’t enrolled in school or about to graduate but had misled his family. As the group arrived home, a gunman shot all four of them, purposely hitting Whitaker in the arm to draw any suspicion away from him as a suspect. At first, police suspected a burglary gone bad.

After the shooting, Whitaker lived at home with his father for seven months until police identified him as a suspect. Among other things, they grew skeptical that the crime scene had not resembled a legitimate burglary. Whitaker’s two accomplices would soon admit the plot to investigators. Prosecutors with the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s office believed Whitaker was motivated by inheritance money.

Prosecutors strongly opposed clemency in Whitaker’s case. In a statement Thursday to a Houston Chronicle reporter, District Attorney John Healey said: “I have never wavered in my support of the jury’s decision. They heard all the evidence after a tremendous investigation and prosecutorial effort. What they didn’t hear, but what I hope the governor heard … was that Tricia Whitaker’s family was fully in favor of carrying out the execution.”

After the governor’s decision was announced, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said during a news conference that Whitaker would be transferred off death row and to a new facility for medical and psychological evaluations — “starting from scratch.”

The spokesman also read a message that he said was from Whitaker.

“I’m thankful for this decision not for me, but for my dad,” the statement said. “Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive is just. I deserve punishment for my crime, but my dad did nothing wrong. The system worked for him today, and I will do my best to uphold my end of the bargain.”

This article was originally published by the Washington Post on February 23, 2018