Gov. Abbott spares inmate’s life in death row case

The gurney is used to restrain condemned prisoners during the lethal injection process at an execution chamber in Huntsville. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency to Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, who had been sentenced to death for his role in a murder-for-hire scheme against his family. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Didi Martinez | Digital Managing Editor

With the fate of an inmate on death row in his hands, Gov. Greg Abbott has decided to grant clemency to Thomas “Bart” Whitaker who was scheduled for execution Thursday.

The governor’s decision was made at 4:55 p.m. today — almost one hour before Bart Whitaker’s execution via lethal injection was scheduled to take place.

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker 
Photo Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The decision was placed on the governor after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted in favor of clemency for the 38-year-old inmate. At the time, Bart Whitaker’s attorney, Keith Hampton said he feared the opportunity to spare Whitaker’s life would “close rapidly” should the governor deny the move but was “hopeful” that Abbott would rule in favor of the board’s recommendation.

Bart Whitaker was initially sentenced to death after it was revealed that he planned to have his family killed through a staged burglary and murder-for-hire scheme in order to receive a $1.5 million inheritance, according to court documents. The December 2003 incident took place after the family had returned home from celebrating Bart Whitaker’s graduation from Sam Houston State University — the school he had transferred to after attending Baylor University in 2011, but never actually graduated from. At the house 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. Only Bart Whitaker and his father Kent Whitaker survived the attack.

But around 5:20 p.m. today, Hampton got the call that he had been waiting for, and said he was the first person to deliver the news to the convict’s father, who has been at the forefront of the battle for his son’s life.

“I’m glad the governor followed the recommendation and did the right thing,” Hampton wrote to the Lariat via email.

As for the inmate, Bart Whitaker told prison officials he is “thankful.”

“I’m thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad. Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just,” Bart Whitaker said in his statement. “I deserve any punishment for my crimes, but my dad did nothing wrong. The system worked for him today and I will do my best to uphold my end of the bargain.”

But not all were in favor of commuting his sentence to a life in prison. Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor on the case, told the Houston Chronicle that he opposed the board’s recommendation. Felcman said the board undermined the work of law enforcement and the jury system.

“They [the board] also ignored the Bartlett family, Patricia’s side of the family, who wanted him executed, who feel threatened by him and scared of him,” Felcman told the paper on Tuesday.

The decision to commute the sentence was an unusual one for the state of Texas given the board’s clemency recommendation — a move that hasn’t been done since 2009 — and Abbott’s track record with death penalty cases.

“In just over three years as governor, I have allowed 30 executions,” Abbott wrote in a statement. “I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now, for reasons I here explain.”

In his statement, the governor cited the “totality of circumstances” in the case such as the father’s pleas for his son’s life, the fate of the shooter in the case and the board’s unanimous recommendation as reasons for his decision.

As part of the commutation, Bart Whitaker agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.