The forgiving father of a death row inmate who had his sentence commuted on Thursday at the last minute has described their final goodbye and how he prepared to watch him be given the lethal injection.
Kent Whitaker appeared on Megyn Kelly Today on Friday with his second wife Tanya to share their relief at Governor Greg Abbott’s decision not to execute his son Bart.
In 2003, Bart orchestrated the murder of his brother and mother in a hitman plot which he set up hoping to inherit his family’s fortune.
The plan was for Kent to die too but he survived from gunshots inflicted by the two hitmen his son had hired who were waiting inside their home when they returned one night from dinner.
Bart was arrested two years later after going on the run and he was sentenced to death despite his father’s pleas for him to be given a jail term.
Now 38, he was due to be executed at the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, on Thursday night but an hour before the scheduled execution, Governor Abbott commuted his sentence.
‘It is a day of great hope’: Kent Whitaker and his wife Tanya spoke on Friday about the 11th hour commutation that his son Bart received on Thursday night, less than an hour before he was due to be sentenced
It is the first he has ever overturned a death sentence and came after unanimous vote from the parole board to spare Bart’s life.
Kent sobbed with relief after the announcement was made, relieved that his son would be allowed to live out his life in prison.
He was waiting for confirmation of the execution – which he decided not to attend at the last minute – when he found out that his son, his only living relative, would in fact be allowed to live.
Bart Whitaker, 38, will now spend the rest of his life in prison where his father says he is a model inmate and has been able to benefit others
‘I think this is a day of great hope. He has been given a second chance at life and, I believe with all my heart, that he is going to take that and use it,’ Kent said on Friday.
The 69-year-old described in heartbreaking detail how he said goodbye to his son earlier in the day during their last face-to-face visit.
‘We started the day not knowing what was going to happen, believing that Governor Greg Abbott would commute the sentence but not knowing.
‘We drove to the prison for what could have been our last 2 hour visit and we started the visit kind of upbeat, expecting there to be a notification at any moment but nothing came and as the visit wore on, it became more and more obvious that one wasn’t going to come
‘So by the time the visit ended at noon we were aware that this very well may be our last opportunity to see each other.
‘It was extremely sad. We touched the glass with our hands and said goodbye and then we left and drove to Huntsville where the execution would take place and he was taken by a five-car parade to Huntsville to be prepared for the execution.’
In 2003, Bart ordered the killings of his older brother Kevin and his wife Patricia. The plan was for his father to die too but Kent survived when two hitmen his son hired shot them all in their home after they returned from dinner. The plot was devised so that Bart could inherit the family’s fortune which was estimated at the time to be more than $1million
Kent, a devout Christian, forgave his son and has been fighting to keep him alive ever since. He accepts that he struggled with mental health issues and says he made a bad choice but pleaded with prosecutors and state officials not to kill him, claiming that he could use his time in prison to benefit others through community or education based programs
Kent and Tanya were taken to a home which is laid on for the families of death row inmates who are about to be executed.
Just before 5pm, they had their final phone call.
‘It was so painful, they cut the phone off at five o’clock.
‘And so the time is ticking away, it is so silent in there and finally about 4:55, so we said okay, we are going to say goodbye now.
‘And we told him how much we love him, how much god loves him and that we were coming to pray up into the minute,’ Tanya said.
Kent had always planned to watch his son’s death from the observation room, explaining on Friday that he wanted Bart to know that he was loved and that someone cared for him.
‘So he would know that somebody loved him and cared and acknowledged that he was there,’ he said.
In recent months however, the families of other death row inmates and others who have witnessed executions advised him against it.
On Tuesday, the Texas Parole Board voted unanimously to commute Bart’s sentence. It is the first time they have ever made such a decision. Kent and Tanya are pictured reacting to that news as their lawyer Keith Hampton reads it out
Kent and Tonya embrace after being given the news of the parole board’s decision. Governor Abbott took two days to consider it then followed by granting Bart clemency
‘I’ve had so many people who witness these tell me over and over again, “you shouldn’t be there. You do not want this to be your last memory of your son.”‘
He decided then that Tanya would go to watch and that he would stay in the house and pray.
She had left for the prison and was there when the announcement came through from Governor Abbott’s office.
Bartt is pictured in his 2005 mugshot. He went on the run after the killings and was arrested in Mexico. He will never get out of prison
Kent’s lawyer called him to give him the news and he said he played it on speaker for others who had joined him to pray.
‘When he did, the whole room the whole room just burst into cheers. Huge relief. It was another celebration when Tanya returned to the house.
‘It was an amazing celebration, we just. It was a vindication of a lot of hard work on a lot of people’s part,’ he said.
Kent is a devout Christian who had always vowed to forgive whoever killed his wife and son.
He was unaware that Bart was behind the murder plot for months but, when he learned that he was, he stuck to his resolve.
Both he and his late first wife’s family pleaded with prosecutors not to seek the death penalty but they were ignored.
In 2005, after his son’s arrest, he met with the District Attorney and begged them not to sentence him to death.
‘At the conclusion, the DA leaned over the table and asked, “So. Mr. Whitaker, you are asking me not to pursue the death penalty?”
‘I got out of my chair and down on my knees and said, “I’m begging you not to pursue the death penalty,”” Kent told The Washington Post at the start of the month.
Prosecutors proceeded with their capital case and a jury convicted Bart unanimously. Fred Felcman, the prosecutor, opposed the clemency.
Another inmate was given a last chance at life in Alabama on Thursday as Bart was spared.
Doyle Lee Hamm was scheduled to be executed at 6pm but the medical experts administering it took two-and-a-half hours to find his veins and gave up afterwards.
In Florida, Eric Scott Branch was not as lucky.
He screamed ‘murderers, murderers, murderers!’ as he was given the lethal injection.
Eric Scott Branch, 47, (left) was executed by lethal injection on Thursday in Florida. Doyle Lee Hamm was due to be executed in Alabama but medical experts gave up after spending two-and-a-half hours searching for his veins