Thomas Bartlett ‘Bart’ Whitaker, 38, was granted a commutation Thursday in Texas
The governor of Texas has granted an 11th-hour commutation to a death row inmate who contracted a hitman to murder his mom and brother.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday commuted the execution of Thomas Bartlett ‘Bart’ Whitaker, 38, to a sentence of life in prison, just hours before he was scheduled to die.
Whitaker had even been served his last meal of chicken enchiladas, rice, beans and vegetables before the execution was canceled.
His father Kent Whitaker, a devout Christian who came to forgive him, had lobbied the state tirelessly for clemency in the case.
‘I´m thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad,’ Whitaker said, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. ‘Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just. I deserve any punishment for my crimes, but my dad did nothing wrong.’
‘Mr Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime,’ Abbott wrote in a proclamation explaining his decision, shortly before the scheduled execution.
Whitaker (left) set up the ambush that killed his mom and brother (right). His father (center) survived the shooting and, after learning to forgive his son, is asking state officials for mercy
Abbott said he had taken into consideration the fact that ‘the person who fired the gun that killed the victims did not receive the death penalty, but Mr Whitaker, who did not fire the gun, did get the death penalty.’
He also cited the father’s desperate petition for clemency. ‘Mr Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son,’ Abbott wrote. ‘Mr Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member.’
In 2003, Whitaker lied to his family that he was about to graduate from Sam Houston University and lured them to a celebratory dinner.
A hitman he had hired staged a burglary in their home and lay in wait. When the family returned, Whitaker’s mother Tricia, 51, and brother Kevin, 19, were killed. His father, Kent, was shot in the chest and survived.
Whitaker returned to live with his wounded father for seven months before the truth emerged that it was the son who hired the gunman.
Kent Whitaker (left) said he had forgiven his killer son (right) and that his family did not want him to be executed. The governor of Texas commuted the death sentence at the dad’s request
Kent, a devout Christian, told AFP that he had initially been ‘mad at God’ after being shot.
‘I was wrestling with my faith,’ he said. ‘But God met me in the hospital room on the night of the shootings and helped me arrive at a miracle forgiveness for everyone involved,’ he said.
‘Long before I ever even suspected that that forgiveness might extend to my own son.’
‘I live with the extent of the loss every day and am aware of how much it has cost me – and am completely aware that all of that loss was the result of decisions made by my son,’ he said.
‘But God helped me reach that complete forgiveness and I think he did that to help me rebuild my relationship with my son.’
Not everyone agreed with Abbott’s decision to commute the death sentence in the high-profile case.
Death was the appropriate punishment, one of the jurors on the case told ABC 13. She is disappointed but not surprised by what the governor did.
‘We came to the conclusion that Bart Whitaker was a master manipulator. He manipulated people into killing for him,’ she said.
Rapist and killer Eric Scott Branch, 47, was executed in Florida on Thursday
‘The death sentence was the correct sentence. I also feel he manipulated the parole board and the governor,’ said the juror, who asked not to be identified.
Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey told the station: ‘I know the sentence of death was the appropriate decision, but I do respect the Governor’s authority.’
Also on Thursday, Florida went forward with the execution of convicted killer and rapist Eric Scott Branch, 47.
In Alabama, Doyle Lee Hamm, 61, was to be executed by lethal injection on Thursday night.
The US Supreme Court ruled at about 9pm that the execution could proceed, after delaying it for three hours to consider the final appeals.