Death Row Inmate Gets Second Chance, at the Last Minute, From Texas Governor

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott agreed Thursday evening to spare the life of death row inmate Thomas Whitaker, announcing his decision less than an hour before the Houston-area man's scheduled execution.
by | February 23, 2018 AT 9:45 AM

By Chuck Lindell

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott agreed Thursday evening to spare the life of death row inmate Thomas Whitaker, announcing his decision less than an hour before the Houston-area man's scheduled execution.

Abbott said a number of factors distinguished Whitaker's case from 30 other executions that had taken place under his watch as governor, including the pleas of the inmate's father, Kent Whitaker, who had begged for his son's life to be spared despite being shot and severely wounded in the 2003 ambush that had killed two other members of his family.

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

Kent Whitaker said the governor's dramatic decision _ which came after his son was served his last meal and after they had said their final goodbyes during a 90-minute phone call that ended shortly before 5 p.m. _ capped a long and nerve-wracking wait.

"It was so awful; we were crying at the end because it looked like it was actually going to happen," Kent Whitaker told The Austin American-Statesman by phone from Huntsville. "I couldn't believe that it took so long, but I'm so glad."

Thomas Whitaker was sentenced to die for setting up the 2003 ambush that wounded his father and killed his mother, Tricia, and only other sibling, brother Kevin, a college sophomore, as they entered their Sugar Land home. Prosecutors said the murders were a misguided attempt to get an inheritance that didn't exist; Kent Whitaker blamed an undiagnosed mental illness.

The crime, Abbott said, was reprehensible and deserved a harsh punishment.

But the governor also noted that the death sentence was harsher than the life sentence given to convicted gunman Chris Brashear, the friend Whitaker had recruited to kill his family. Other special circumstances included Thomas Whitaker's agreement to "voluntarily and forever" waive parole and the unanimous recommendation for clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles earlier this week, Abbott said.

"The totality of these factors warrants a commutation of Mr. Whitaker's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole," Abbott said. "Mr. Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime."

In the weeks before his son's long-scheduled execution date, Kent Whitaker pressed state officials for mercy, saying he had seen enough killing and didn't want to watch the last remaining member of his family be executed by the state.

As a Christian, Kent Whitaker said, he long ago forgave his son _ a spiritual journey he chronicled in the book, "Murder by Family." As the chief surviving victim of the crime, he said a state that so strongly recognized victims' rights should acknowledge his plea for mercy instead of vengeance.

On Tuesday, the seven-member parole board unanimously supported converting Whitaker's death sentence to life in prison, leaving the final decision on whether to grant clemency in Abbott's hands.

Kent Whitaker and his second wife, Tanya, had visited Thomas Whitaker for about two hours before noon, speaking over a phone and pressing their hands to the window that separated them.

The Whitakers then went to a nearby church with about a dozen supporters. As the 6 p.m. execution time neared, Kent said he grudgingly abandoned plans to attend the execution _ a duty he felt he had to perform to let his son know that he loved him and truly forgave him.

"Everyone said that I did not want that to be the last vision of my son," he said. "At the last minute, I finally accepted the wisdom of me not going."

Tanya agreed to go to the death chamber to represent the family, so they were parted when the telephone call from lawyer Keith Hampton came with the news of Abbott's decision.

"We were just praying in a group and the phone rang," Kent Whitaker said, adding that he put the call on speaker once he heard the news. "Everyone just exploded in joy."

Texas governors cannot grant commutation without previous support from the parole board, and the Whitaker case was Abbott's first such decision in a death row case.

His predecessor, Rick Perry, backed the board's clemency recommendation in 2007, commuting the death sentence of Kenneth Foster, the getaway driver in a murder who was convicted under the law of parties. But Perry rejected recommendations for clemency in 2004 for Kelsey Patterson, who had killed two in Palestine, and in 2009 for Robert Lee Thompson, who took part in a fatal robbery of a Houston store. Patterson and Thompson were executed.

(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas