In an exceedingly rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to recommend a lesser sentence for a death row inmate facing execution.
The board voted unanimously in favor of clemency for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a man who is set to die on Thursday evening. The decision now falls on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who can approve or deny the recommendation to change Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison.
The last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2007. An Abbott spokeswoman did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Whitaker, 38, was convicted in the 2003 murders of his mother and 19-year-old brother as part of a plot to get inheritance money. His father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot in the attack but survived and has consistently begged for a life sentence for his son.
“Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance,” Kent Whitaker said at a press conference at the Texas Capitol just before the board’s vote came in.
Keith Hampton, Thomas Whitaker's lawyer, choked up when announcing to the family and the press that the board had recommended clemency. Kent Whitaker's wife cried out and grabbed Whitaker, who let out a sob and held his head in his hands.
“Well, we’re going to the governor’s office right now,” Hampton said.
When he was 23, Thomas Whitaker came home from dinner with his family in December 2003 knowing that his roommate Chris Brashear was waiting there to kill them, according to court documents. When they entered the house, Brashear shot and wounded Thomas’ father and killed his mother, Patricia, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin.
Suspicion turned toward Whitaker in the murder investigation the next June, and he fled to Mexico, according to court documents. He was arrested more than a year later, and his father begged the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office not to seek the death penalty.
Whitaker offered to plead guilty to two life sentences, but the prosecution rejected the offer, saying Whitaker wasn’t remorseful and was being manipulative, court records show. They sought the death penalty, and in March 2007, they got it. Brashear was given a life sentence.
Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor in the case, said Tuesday that the parole board made its decision only because of the father’s forgiveness, and seemingly didn't take into account the large number of other people affected by the murders including the victims, the county, the jury and Patricia’s family. He said the board also 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,” said Felcman, who is first assistant district attorney at Fort Bend County.
In Whitaker’s clemency petition, Hampton asked the board to listen to the inmate’s father, since he is the one who was hurt most by the crime, having watched his wife and son die before his eyes as he suffered from his own gunshot wound to the chest.
“He is the last member of my direct family, and he’s gonna be taken from us by the state of Texas in the name of justice in a way that none of my family wants,” Whitaker said just before the board decision.