On February 22, 2018, less than one hour before Thomas “Bart” Whitaker was scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott made history in the Lone Star State by granting clemency to a capital prisoner. Governor Abbott accepted a rare unanimous recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Whitaker’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Whitaker was convicted in 2007 for orchestrating the 2003 murder-for-hire plot of his father, mother, and brother for insurance money. During a planned ambush at their home, Whitaker’s mother and brother were killed; but Whitaker’s father, Kent, survived. Although he was seriously injured during the attempted murder, Kent grew to become the fiercest advocate against his son’s pending execution. In an unusually frank clemency petition shared with the public as well as with the Texas Board, attorneys for Whitaker wrote, “imagine two people in your family who you love most. Now, imagine one of them murders the other. There must be punishment. But would you prefer execution? What if that person was your only remaining child?” The clemency petition went on, “the moral choice now before each member of this Board is a diminished and distant version of the deeply personal choice Kent Whitaker faced. You are merely asked: Is clemency warranted where execution might be justice for a wicked crime, yet would also permanently compound the suffering and grief of the remaining victim?” Ultimately Whitaker’s was the rare Texas case to inspire a unanimous vote from the Board to extend mercy. The last time clemency was granted in a Texas capital case was in 2007, when Kenneth Foster’s sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole over concerns about Texas’s “law of parties,” which allowed Foster—who did not kill the victim and only served as a getaway driver from the scene of the botched robbery—to face execution. Henry Lee Lucas, who was granted clemency in 1998 by George W. Bush over concerns about innocence, is the third and only other individual to receive clemency from a death sentence in Texas. Alongside these three grants of clemency, there have been 550 executions in Texas since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977.
Governor Abbott’s Proclamation Granting Commutation.