Minutes before execution, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott commutes the sentence of death row inmate Thomas Whitaker
More than 10 years had passed and nearly 150 people had been executed since a Texas governor last spared an inmate from a death sentence.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott broke that streak Thursday when he accepted the state parole board's rare and unanimous recommendation to grant clemency for death row inmate Thomas Whitaker less than an hour before his scheduled execution. Whitaker was set to die for the 2003 murders of his mother and brother in Fort Bend County.
It was the first time the board had recommended to change a death sentence to life in prison since 2009, and the first time a governor accepted the change since 2007.
"In just over three years as Governor, I have allowed 30 executions. I have not granted a commutation of a death sentence until now," said Abbott, a staunch supporter of the death penalty.
All seven members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles suggested on Tuesday that Abbott change Whitaker's death sentence to life in prison based on his clemency petition, which included pleadings for mercy from Whitaker's father, who was also shot in the 2003 attack, and fellow death row inmates.
Whitaker, 38, planned the murders of his family with his roommate, Chris Brashear, who shot the murder victims and Whitaker's father, Kent, as they all came home from dinner one evening. The roommates had planned the murders to get inheritance money.
He was sentenced to death in the murders in 2007, despite pleas for a life sentence from his father, who survived a gunshot wound to the chest in the shooting. The prosecutor rejected a guilty plea offer because he said Whitaker wasn't remorseful and was being manipulative.
Kent Whitaker fought for mercy for his son throughout his death sentence. He pleaded with the parole board and Abbott not to take his son away since he had already lost the rest of his family.
"There's a chance for the governor to be tough on crime and still grant me the victim's right to ask for mercy," he told press at the Texas Capitol Tuesday afternoon, just before the board vote came in.
Death row inmates and former prison guards also sent letters to the parole board, attesting to Whitaker's good character, saying he was a model prisoner and helped other inmates on death row, according to his petition for clemency.
The prosecutor in Whitaker's case, Fred Felcman, told The Texas Tribune Tuesday that Abbott shouldn't grant clemency for Whitaker. He said the parole board didn't take into account Patricia's family or Whitaker's manipulations. He said the board only listened to Whitaker's father.
One juror in Whitaker's case anonymously told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday that since Whitaker had convinced his roommate to carry out the murders for him, "the only way people are safe is if he's dead."
State Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso who chairs the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, said in a letter to Abbott that he understood the jury's desire to carry out the ultimate punishment, but asked the governor to grant clemency.
"The board did the hard work of examining how the offender has conducted himself since then and what impact his execution would have on the surviving victim, his father, who's already lost his wife and other son," Moody said.
A Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Jeff Leach, of Plano, also worked to convince Abbott to change Whitaker's sentence Thursday, he said.
This was the first time Abbott has been forced to make the final decision for a death row inmate facing execution. In his previous job as state attorney general, Abbott portrayed a "tough-on-crime" attitude and regularly fought in court to move death sentences and executions forward.
Abbott's predecessor in the governor's office, Rick Perry, rejected two clemency recommendations for inmates facing execution and accepted one over 14 years, according to data kept by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. None of the three were unanimous decisions by the pardons and parole board, like in Whitaker's case.
If the execution had proceeded, Kent Whitaker had planned to attend the execution. Earlier Thursday, he visited his son and said goodbye through a glass pane.
"My wife and I and Thomas all put our hands on the glass and said how much we loved each other," he said in a text to The Texas Tribune.