Texas parole board recommends killer be spared from death

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a rare decision, unanimously recommended Tuesday that the death sentence of convicted killer Thomas “Bart” Whitaker be commuted.

Whitaker is scheduled for lethal injection Thursday for masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother at their suburban Houston home in 2003. Whitaker’s father, Kent, also was shot in the attack but survived. He said he wants his 38-year-old son to live.

The recommendation from the seven-member panel goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who can accept it or reject it. The governor appoints the parole board. 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 two of those cases, then-Gov. Rick Perry rejected the board’s recommendation and those prisoners are among the 548 executed in Texas, more than any other state.

David Gutierrez, the parole board’s presiding officer, said the panel recommended the governor commute Whitaker’s sentence “to a lesser penalty.” Jurors who convicted him and sentenced him to death in 2007 had only one other option, life imprisonment. 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. Kent Whitaker has said he’s seen “too much killing already,” has forgiven his son and believes his son is a changed person.

Whitaker, his son’s attorney and supporters awaited the decision in a conference room in the Texas Capitol. As lawyer Keith Hampton read the outcome, Whitaker covered his face with his hand and wept softly. After about 15 seconds, he looked at Hampton and murmured, “Thank you.”

“I never, ever believed that we were going to get a unanimous decision in favor,” he said as he and Hampton headed immediately across the building to Abbott’s ceremonial office — even though the governor wasn’t there — to plead with the governor that he honor the board’s recommendation.

“The best we were hoping was a 4-3,” he said. “This is beyond amazing. I can’t tell you.” At his trial, Bart Whitaker said he took “100 percent” responsibility for planning and carrying out the killings. Prosecutors said he hated his parents and hoped to collect an inheritance.

“I think it’s the wrong decision and clearly the wrong decision,” said Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey, whose office prosecuted Whitaker and convinced a jury to convict him and send him to death row.

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