Governor Abbott commutes death sentence of Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Governor Greg Abbott today issued a proclamation commuting the death sentence of Thomas Bartlett Whitaker following a unanimous decision by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Thomas Bartlett Whitaker will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Governor Abbott released the following statement:

“As a former trial court judge, Texas Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General involved in prosecuting some of the most notorious criminals in Texas, I have the utmost regard for the role that juries and judges play in our legal system. The role of the Governor is not to second-guess the court process or re-evaluate the law and evidence. Instead, the Governor’s role under the Constitution is distinct from the judicial function. The Governor’s role is to consider recommendations by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and view matters through a lens broader than the facts and law applied to a single case. That is particularly important in death penalty cases.

“In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now, for reasons I here explain.

“The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible. The crime deserves severe punishment for the criminals who killed them. The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.

“The decision of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is supported by the totality of circumstances in this case. 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. That factor alone may not warrant commutation for someone like Mr. Whitaker who recruited others to commit murder. Additional factors make the decision more complex.

“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. Also, Mr. Whitaker voluntarily and forever waived any and all claims to parole in exchange for a commutation of his sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole. Moreover, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted for commutation. The totality of these factors warrants a commutation of Mr. Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Whitaker must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime.”

Whitaker was sentenced to death for killing his mother and brother, but his father is asking for clemency.  On Tuesday, the seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended that Abbott commute Whitaker’s death sentence.

"The board only recommends," said Keith Hampton, one of Whitaker's attorneys. "The power resides purely in Gov. Abbott. He could do nothing, which would be pretty amazing. He could literally do nothing. Then (Whitaker) gets executed."

Texas state attorneys were opposing the request to block the execution, saying claims about the drug's ineffectiveness had been repeatedly rejected in the courts.

Kent and Patricia Whitaker and their two boys had returned home the night of Dec. 10, 2003, following a restaurant dinner to celebrate Bart Whitaker's college graduation when they were confronted by a gunman wearing dark clothes and a ski mask. Patricia Whitaker and her 19-year-old son, Kevin, were fatally shot. Kent Whitaker and Bart were wounded.

"I'm 100 percent guilty," Whitaker testified at his trial in 2007. "I put the plan in motion."

In the clemency petition, Whitaker's attorneys said his execution would "permanently compound" his father's suffering and grief, and compared the case to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, where God sent Cain to "restlessly wander" after killing his brother.

It's only the fourth time since the state resumed executions in 1982 that the parole board has recommended clemency within days of an inmate's scheduled execution. In the previous cases, then-Gov. Rick Perry accepted the board's decision in one case and rejected the other two, who subsequently were put to death in the nation's most active capital punishment state.

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