HUNTSVILLE, Texas – Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday saved the life of a convicted murderer shortly before the man's scheduled execution for planning the deadly shots of his mother and brother.
By saving the life of Thomas "Bart" Whitaker, approximately one hour before the scheduled date for lethal injection, Abbott accepted the clemency recommendation of the state's parole board. Whitaker's father, Kent, was also shot in the 2003 plot at the suburban family home in Houston, but he survived and led the effort to save his son from execution. Abbott commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole.
"I'm not grateful for me, but for my father," Bart Whitaker told prison officials after spreading the word in a small cell a few meters from the death chamber. "Any punishment I would have or will receive is just, but my father did nothing wrong, the system worked for him today, and I will do everything possible to keep my role in the system."
The Board of Pardons and Paroles of seven Texas members, whose members are appointed by the governor, unanimously recommended Tuesday that Abbott commute the sentence. Abbott, a Republican had the option to accept the recommendation, reject it or do nothing.
"Mr. Whitaker's father, who survived the attack on his life, is passionately opposed to the execution of his son." Mr. Whitaker's father insists that he would be victimized again if the State killed his last relative Immediately remaining, "Abbott said in a proclamation issued Thursday night, adding that Whitaker had also agreed to waive all parole rights.  Abbott, also citing the recommendation of the parole board, added: "All of these factors justify a commutation of Mr. Whitaker's death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."
It was only the fourth time since the state in 1982 that executions resumed that the parole board recommended a pardon within days of the scheduled execution of an inmate. In the previous cases, then-Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, accepted the board's decision in one case and rejected the other two, who were subsequently executed in the most active state of capital punishment in the nation.
Kent Whitaker said he was "humiliated" and looked forward to hugging and touching his son.
"It was overwhelming," he said of the governor's decision, which he learned in a phone call from Keith Hampton, one of his son's lawyers. He and his followers were close to the prison in a home used by the prisoner's visitors and were standing and praying, Whitaker said. He put Hampton's call on his speaker.
"The room exploded," he said.
Hampton said he was "very relieved (Abbott) did the right thing."
Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Bart Whitaker placed his arm through the bars of the cell when he finished speaking with prison officials and asked him to shake his hand.
"I have not touched another person in 13 years," Whitaker told Clark, who said he accepted the prisoner's request. Death row inmates in Texas remain alone in their cells for 23 hours a day and their one hour of recreation is also only in a concrete enclosure.
Agency spokesman Jeremy Desel said that Whitaker would not return to death row but would be taken to a prison processing center where he would be treated as a new incoming prisoner and finally assigned to a unit in general population, a process that would probably take a couple of weeks.
Kent and Patricia Whitaker and their two children had returned home the night of December 10, 2003, after a dinner at a restaurant to celebrate Bart Whitaker's college graduation when confronted by a gunman dressed in dark clothes and a balaclava. Patricia Whitaker and her 19-year-old son, Kevin, were murdered. Kent Whitaker and Bart were injured.
Almost two years later, Bart Whitaker was arrested in Mexico after investigators determined that he arranged the plot in the hope of collecting a family property that he believed was worth more than $ 1 million.
"I'm 100 percent guilty," Whitaker testified at his trial in 2007. "I put the plan up and running."
He hated his parents and brother at that time, he said.
Whitaker's father said he loves and has forgiven his son, calling him a changed person.
"As the biggest victim in this case, you do not have to convince me how horrible this crime was," said Kent Whitaker.
Evidence showed that the plot included two of Bart Whitaker's friends were at least his third attempt to kill his family. Whitaker's wound on his arm was intended to divert attention from his involvement. Unknown to his parents, the celebration of the dinner that marked his graduation was a fraud. He had left school months earlier.
The gunman, Chris Brashear, pleaded guilty in 2007 to one count of murder and is serving a life sentence. Steve Champagne, who drove Brashear from Whitaker's house on the night of the shooting, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in exchange for testifying at Whitaker's trial.