Parole board recommends clemency for former Baylor student on death row

Kent Whitaker, center, reacts to the his lawyer Keith Hampton, right, reading an email from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles which voted unanimously to recommend clemency for death row inmate Thomas "Bart" Whitaker. At left is Kent's wife Tanya, whom he married later. The board recommended that Whitaker's sentence be reduced to life in prison as they read the reaction Tues., Feb. 20 in Austin. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

By Didi Martinez | Digital Managing Editor

A former Baylor student on death row has been granted a recommendation for a lesser sentence just two days before his scheduled execution.

On Tuesday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted in favor of clemency for Thomas “Bart” Whitaker. The move, should it be approved by Gov. Greg Abbott, would change Bart’s sentencing to life in prison, and not death by execution.

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker was sentenced to death for his role in conspiring a staged burglary and murder of his family for a $1.5 million inheritance.
Photo Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Bart’s attorney, Keith Hampton told the Lariat that since the decision, he has placed numerous calls and tried to meet with the Governor’s General Council. He said he would also like to meet with the governor himself, if possible, ahead of his decision.

“We would like to meet him,” Hampton said. “We would like to know if you are [sic] being told something that we could refute. It’s not over yet.”

Hampton said they are hopeful that Gov. Abbott will decide in favor of the board’s recommendation. The attorney also said he fears the window of opportunity to spare Bart’s life would “close rapidly” should the governor deny the move — even if they were to go through with the previously expected cert petition. Instead, Hampton said he would ask for a 30 day reprieve as a last-ditch attempt to halt the execution.

“But I would be very surprised,” Hampton said. “If you are going to say no, you need to have a conversation with the surviving victim, Mr. [Kent] Whitaker.”

The Lariat has reached out to Gov. Abbott’s office, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor in the case and first assistant district attorney for Fort Bend County, told the Texas Tribune on Tuesday that the board “disregarded testimony from psychiatrists and their own investigators who said Whitaker was manipulative.”

“I’m trying to figure out why [the board members] think they should commute this, and why the governor should even give it a second thought,” Felcman told the Tribune.

The 38-year-old convict was initially sentenced to death after it was revealed that he had planned a staged burglary that would leave his family dead and enable him to receive a $1.5 million inheritance, according to court documents.

The December 2003 murder took place after the family was returning to their Sugar Land home from a dinner celebrating Bart Whitaker’s graduation from Sam Houston State University — the school he had transferred to after attending Baylor University in 2001. Later it was revealed he had never actually graduated. It was at the house that two of Bart Whitaker’s friends, Chris Brashear and Steve Champagne, staged the robbery and Brashear opened fire, killing Bart Whitaker’s 53-year-old mother, Patricia Whitaker, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin Whitaker. Bart Whitaker was wounded as was his father, Kent Whitaker, who had survived the attack.

Should Texas go through with Bart’s execution, he would be the fourth person to be executed by the state this year.