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Texas governor spares death row inmate who plotted murder of his mother and brother

Kent Whitaker embraces his wife, Tanya, after learning Tuesday the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended clemency for death row inmate Thomas Whitaker, Kent's son. Keith Whitaker, Kent's brother, is at right.
(Ralph Barrera / Associated Press)

Half an hour before he was scheduled to be executed, a man convicted of masterminding the murder of his mother and younger brother was granted clemency Thursday by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott, a former state attorney general and Texas Supreme Court judge, noted that he has presided over 30 executions and never agreed to commute a death sentence in his three years as governor until the case of Thomas “Bart” Whitaker.

The Republican governor said in a statement that he took into account Whitaker’s father’s opposition to his son’s execution, a state board’s unanimous vote for clemency and other factors.

“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, adding that the inmate “must spend the remainder of his life behind bars as punishment for this heinous crime.”

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Whitaker, 38, was convicted of plotting the murder of mother Patricia Whitaker, 51, and brother Kevin Whitaker, 19, at their suburban Houston home in 2003. Father Kent Whitaker, 69, survived and opposed his son’s execution.

Among the factors Abbott said he considered was the fact that “Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member.”

After Thomas Whitaker was notified that his life had been spared, he released a statement saying he was “thankful for this decision, not for me but for my dad.”

“Whatever punishment I might have received or will receive will be just. 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,” he said.

The Whitakers were attacked as they returned home from dinner celebrating Thomas Whitaker’s college graduation. In reality, he had missed too many classes and had lied about graduating. Whitaker had two accomplices: the gunman, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and a getaway driver, who received a 15-year sentence.

On Tuesday, the seven-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to grant Whitaker clemency after members met separately with the inmate and his father. Such unanimous votes are rare. No Texas governor has challenged one since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, according to Whitaker’s Austin-based attorney, Keith Hampton.

Kent Whitaker had opposed prosecutors seeking the death penalty at trial and continued to fight for his son to receive clemency, visiting him regularly on death row. He attested to his son’s remorse and rehabilitation, noting he had been a model prisoner for 11 years, received a bachelor’s degree and nearly a master’s degree in English literature while behind bars.

Thomas Whitaker even started a blog on which he shared stories with other inmates called “Minutes Before Six” — the time executions are carried out in Texas.

Earlier Thursday, while Whitaker was still on “death watch,” his father visited and they celebrated the clemency board’s vote, hoping Abbott would agree, as he eventually did.

“I’m glad he listened to his board and did the right thing,” Kent Whitaker said late Thursday as he celebrated his son’s transfer from death row into the general prison population in coming weeks.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Fred Felcman, told the Texas Tribune that the board’s vote was misguided. He insists Whitaker killed his family in hopes of recouping a million-dollar inheritance, manipulated his father at trial and in the years since, and remains a “narcissistic sociopath.”

“I have yet to hear anybody who has listened to the facts of the case, what he has done afterwards on death row, who says this is an injustice except people who are anti-death penalty,” Felcman said in an interview this month. “He was the ringleader. He literally led his family back to be assassinated.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf


UPDATES:

6 p.m.: This articled was updated with Times staff reporting and comments from Greg Abbott, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker and Kent Whitaker.

This article was originally published at 4:15 p.m.


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