With His Execution Nigh, a Big Twist in Texas

Thomas Whitaker's case is in Gov. Greg Abbott's hands
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2018 11:47 AM CST
He Had His Mom, Brother Killed. Will He Die Tonight?
This undated file photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows death row inmate Thomas Whitaker.   (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP, File)

The crime was horrific, the aftermath doubly so: A Texas family of four was shot by a masked gunman in December 2003. Kent Whitaker's wife and one of his two sons didn't make it, and Whitaker's initial desire for vengeance gave way to a decision to forgive, "no matter who was responsible"—and then he found out who was. The son who survived, Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, had helped mastermind the attack and was sentenced to death. And so began the elder Whitaker's quest to spare his son from the death penalty, a crusade that just took a big step forward: The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to spare his life, and the situation is now in Gov. Greg Abbott's hands. What you need to know:

  • Things weren't looking up last Thursday: With a scheduled execution of sometime after 6pm on Feb. 22—today—Whitaker on Thursday had his appeal and request for a stay rejected by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, reports the Chronicle.

  • Then came Tuesday: The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles' seven members, who are appointed by the governor, voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend that the 38-year-old's death sentence be commuted, which would mean he would instead serve a life sentence. The Texas Tribune explains how rare this is: The last time the board made this kind of recommendation was in 2009.
  • In Abbott's hands: It's now up to the Republican governor to make the final call. CBS News reports Abbott could accept the recommendation, reject it, or do nothing, though if he doesn't act, it could trigger a legal challenge. He has thus far said that "the most important thing is both I and my staff have the opportunity to evaluate all the facts, all the circumstances, all the law, and base our decision on all of that information." Since 1982, clemency has been recommended for three death-row inmates in the state; those decisions fell to Gov. Rick Perry, who spared one man and rejected clemency for the other two.
  • The political calculus: A political science professor tells Click2Houston that Abbott's re-election bid shouldn't really taint things, and that accepting the recommendation would probably be good for him. Abbott would "be seen as the compassionate stance ... To the extent in which [it] does alienate any voters, it’s going to alienate strong conservatives who are probably going to vote for Gov. Abbott in the end anyway, not for a Democrat."

  • Kent Whitaker's attitude: He tells the Washington Post, "I know [my dead wife and son] would not want Bart's life taken for this. They would be horrified at what's happening. 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."
  • The prosecutor's attitude: Fred Felcman prosecuted the case and expressed his disbelief to the Texas Tribune that "the governor should even give [clemency] a second thought." He believes the parole board gave weight only to Kent Whitaker's statements and ignored the other people affected by the crime, as well as assertions by psychiatrists and investigators that Whitaker is manipulative.
  • A juror's attitude: A woman who served on the jury in the case expressed her displeasure with the clemency recommendation in comments to the Chronicle: "We tried to find a way to not kill the guy as a jury. ... The law said he needed to be a continuing danger to society and we finally decided that he was because his method of killing was to get other people to kill for him. If he could convince college kids to kill for him, what would prevent him from getting other inmates to do it? He wasn't even promising them riches, it was just, 'I don't like my family, why don't you help me?'"
(Read more execution stories.)

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